Graveyard of Champions?
Not on this day.
Fighting off tight quarters early and the ghosts of Saratoga Race Course that have mischievously messed up the plans of trainers and bettors alike throughout history, Stonestreet Stable’s defending Horse of the Year Curlin made his Spa debut a resounding success as he won Saturday’s 55th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Woodward for three-year-olds and up at nine furlongs.
Saturday’s Woodward also gave Curlin a chance to prove his mettle on the most storied of all racetracks, one that defeated many great horses, including Man o’War and Secretariat.
Like any true champion, Curlin did what he had to do to get the job done.
“Curlin is meant for the big moment,” said trainer Steve Asmussen. “He takes it all in stride.”
Added jockey Robby Albarado: “He spoils us with his brilliance.”
Curlin also got some payback for Albarado, who one week earlier lost the $1 million Travers Stakes presented by Shadwell Farm by a nose to the Eoin Harty-trained Colonel John. Harty saddled Past the Point in the Woodward.
“I was so focused on watching my horse, I didn't see Curlin,” Harty said. “I felt like I won. It was more than I thought I could do. It was a fantastic race. Sometimes, it pays to take a shot.”
Jess Jackson, Curlin’s majority owner, can identify with Harty. Earlier this year, he announced that he would again campaign Curlin as a four-year-old. The owner of the famed Kendall-Jackson wine estate, Jackson was determined to set a course for Curlin that would secure the Smart Strike colt’s place in history. He even took a failed shot at the turf with the notion of trying the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
When Curlin ran second on the grass to Red Rocks in the Man o’War at Belmont Park in July, the decision was made to go back to the dirt and the Woodward became the late-summer goal.
“Aside from the Dubai race and the Breeders’ Cup, this is the most important race we’ve won because of the historic nature of this race and its premier contribution to Curlin’s legacy,” Jackson said. “With all the superstition and the `Graveyard of Champions,’ I was glad the horse showed what he is and we won. It was very important.
“Good horses like Man o’War and Secretariat had problems here. That’s an honor roll of some of the famous and the greatest. I’m glad Curlin showed he was up to it.”
Proof of the power of Saratoga was given just one race before the Woodward, when heavily favored Lucky Island stumbled at the start of the Grade 1 Forego, and then was forced to check sharply, losing all chance of catching First Defence and forcing a ticket-tearing frenzy among the chalk players in the crowd of 22,572.
Heading into Woodward’s first turn, Curlin was caught between Metropolitan Handicap winner Divine Park and Out of Control and was carried out wide.
“Curlin got away in good order,” Albarado said. “I was little wider than I wanted to be around the first turn, but he gave me an indication on the backside that he would be there for me. We were between two horses and getting bounced around a little, but he is a big horse and he handled it.”
Although Albarado wanted to be closer to the rail, he made a wise decision and let Curlin run on, targeting Past the Point, who set wicked fractions of 22.89, 46.20, 1:09.61 and 1:35.33 on the fast track. Curlin was in a long drive and had to work to finally get the lead, but came through the victor in 1:49.34. Albarado later said that Curlin is getting smarter and does just what he has to do, adding that he had no doubt that Curlin would have found another gear had Past the Point come back.
“There was a little concern going into the first turn with the traffic,” Asmussen said. “He got bumped around a little bit. But you could tell halfway down the backside Robby was very comfortable with where he was at. And He went to him when he needed to and it looked like came back with something left.
“The mystique of Saratoga, wining a Grade 1 here, the Graveyard of Champions, all of that works into your head leading up to this. But he came through like Curlin does and we’re extremely proud of him.”
Jackson said there were plenty of options for Curlin, and heading the list is a return to Belmont Park for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
“The perfect scenario would be to run in the best races, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup, and then go overseas to the Japan Cup,” Jackson said. “But that will be hard to press into a four-week schedule. We’ll wait and see. He loves Belmont and now I think he loves Saratoga.”
The feeling is mutual.
Jess Jackson, majority owner of winning favorite Curlin (No. 5): “Aside from the Dubai race and the Breeders’ Cup, this is the most important race we’ve won because of the historic nature of this race and its premier contribution tot Curlin’s legacy. With all the superstition and the `Graveyard of Champions,’ I was glad the horse showed what he is and we won. It was very important. Good horses like Man o’War and Secretariat had problems here. That’s an honor roll of some of the famous and the greatest. I’m glad he showed he was up to it.
“We love Saratoga. Now that Curlin has been on it and has raced on it, he will be even better for it if he ever comes back. I doubt he will because he has a happy fatherhood ahead of him.
“Thank you for giving us this fabulous race. It certainly adds to his legacy.”
(regarding facing Big Brown): “It would be great for racing, great for fans and great for the industry. But my understanding is that Big Brown is going to the breeding shed after this year, so time is running out. And that may be true for Curlin. Curlin has genes that this industry needs: distance and stamina. He has no genetic short-comings.”
“The perfect scenario would be to run in the best races, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup, and then go overseas to the Japan Cup. But that will be hard to press into a four-week schedule. We’ll wait and see. He loves Belmont and now I think he loves Saratoga.
“We love Saratoga. Great restaurants, the ambience, the friendliness. Everything up here was a positive experience.”
Barbara Banke: “This was just marvelous. We toured the shops and exhibits and saw all of the Curlin banners around town. It was great! Thank you, Saratoga! Thank you, NYRA!”
Winning jockey Robby Albarado: “He was great! He is a consummate professional now. It was great for the people to see Curlin in New York.
“The pace was very, very rapid, but Curlin got away in good order. I was little wider than I wanted to be around the first turn, but he gave me an indication on the backside that he would be there for me. We were between two horses and getting bounced around a little, but he is a big horse and he handled it.
“He knows when they cheer for him. He gets swollen up with confidence. Racing needs a star like Curlin, and today he showed what he could do. For me, today was great healing from last week’s Travers.”
Winning jockey Robby Albarado, cont’d: “Here at Saratoga, if you can kick on from the quarter-pole home it’s hard to run down any horse, much less these Grade 1 horses. They stretched the race out pretty good. I had to make a little longer run with Curlin than I wanted.
“I’m going to give credit to the horse who ran second (Past the Point). He ran a huge race to sustain himself after those quick fractions. Curlin got by him and then let up a tad. He’s getting smarter as he gets older.
“He always exceeds our expectations and puts in a great performance. He spoils us with his brilliance.
“He hadn’t been leaving the gate real well his last couple of starts. He left a little sluggish in the Stephen Foster and the Man o’War, so today I wanted to be sure he was standing good and he got away equally with everyone, and he did. So that was the first step I needed. On the first turn I was wide and was between two horses. On the backside, he tugged a bit, let me know he was there and on the far turn, they were still far enough in front of him that I needed to get him moving. Not aggressively call on him, but just get him moving. And he did it. Like I said, he exceeds our expectations every time he runs. Today he showed his versatility running down some very nice horses.
“At the three-eighths pole, when I started squeezing on him, he really started reaching out, striding out. He was making up ground fast on the turn and I thought I had a shot at them, knowing how fast they went up front. I don’t like it, but I had to hit him a couple of times, just to get him going. He’s getting older, a little lackadasical. I just spanked him a couple of time, he got by that horse and he eased up the last couple of strides. It was fine with me, it wasn’t a nose finish like the Travers.”
Eoin Harty, trainer of runner-up Past the Point (No.3): “I was so focused on watching my horse, I didn't see Curlin. I felt like I won. It was more than I thought I could do. It was a fantastic race. Sometimes, it pays to take a shot.”
Edgar Prado, jockey of Past the Point: “Eoin Harty was impressed with the way his horse ran against Curlin. We came out of the gate and looked around to see where everyone was in the race. When Curlin came at us, we tried to pick it up more. Curlin is tough. My horse kept trying against him and didn’t want to give up.”
Nick Zito, trainer of third-place finisher Wanderin Boy (No. 8): “Wanderin Boy ran great against a great horse.”