Finally, he’s here.
Curlin makes his long-awaited Saratoga debut in today’s 55th running of the Woodward, feature on the final Saturday of the meet.
The $500,000 stakes attracted seven others, including Grade I winner Divine Park, but it’s all about the reigning Horse of the Year. A winner of nine of 13 starts and more than $9.4 million, Stonestreet Stables’ Curlin sends Saratoga out with the biggest of bangs.
Trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by Robby Albarado, Curlin makes his fifth start of the year and tries to put a turf loss – his first loss since last year’s Haskell – behind him. The 4-year-old son of Smart Strike finished a game second in his turf debut, the Grade I Man O’ War July 12 at Belmont Park. That squelched talk of trying to tackle France’s Arc de Triomphe. Longchamp’s loss is Saratoga’s gain. Now, it’s back to what Curlin does best, two turns on good old-fashioned dirt.
Stonestreet’s Jess Jackson toyed with the idea of a globetrotting foray but ultimately decided to stick to what got them here and that means the 1 1/8 miles of the Woodward. That’s fine by Asmussen.
“Less variables, walk across the street. If not the Woodward, it would have been on another surface, either synthetic or turf, so this way it kept the workout schedule the easiest for him,” Asmussen said. “We walked him across the street and worked him on the main track. He’d actually never worked over there; he’s done all his works on the Oklahoma track over the years.”
Curlin has become the perfect Saratoga tourist over the past two summers, getting up and enjoying the morning and doing nothing in the afternoon. Saratoga has been simply a training center. That changes today. The big chestnut colt breezed 7 furlongs in 1:24 4/5 seconds Aug. 18 and followed that with a half-mile move at Oklahoma Aug. 25, his sixth breeze since the Man O’ War.
“You want to see the best horses in the best physical condition on a platform that they can run their best races. That’s what we’re concerned about with Curlin,” Asmussen said. “What makes him special, and the reason he has the fan base he does, is because of how continuously he runs solid efforts. It’s something to be proud of and we’re blessed to be a part of him. We now have a goal in the Woodward. I’m glad I’m on his side, he gives you confidence – there’s an air to him.”
Curlin has always done things he’s not supposed to be able to do. He won his debut by double digits. He won a stakes in his second start. He finished third in the Kentucky Derby in just his fourth lifetime start. He won the Preakness two weeks later and topped off an epic Triple Crown series with a head loss to Rags To Riches. He blipped in the Haskell, then won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic. That was his 3-year-old season.
Jackson decided to keep Curlin in training as a 4-year-old for days like this. After winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall to top off his championship season, Curlin shipped to Dubai to win the Jaguar Trophy, a prep for the Grade I Dubai World Cup. He trounced 11 rivals in that $6 million stakes, cruising to a 7 3/4-length win over Asiatic Boy and Well Armed, runner-up last weekend in the Grade I Pacific Classic. The big horse has earned nearly $4.4 million this year.
“Mr. Jackson has allowed us the opportunity to continue the excitement level he’s maintained since he walked into the barn,” Asmussen said. “Its a blessing for us and a financial sacrifice on his part. The horse has made $4 million this year and it doesn’t even come close to what he would have made at stud.”
The third-leading money earner in history, Curlin will pass Skip Away with a victory today and has the all-time leader, 19-win machine Cigar, in his sights. Asmussen, ever analytical, believes he’s identified the root of Curlin’s success.
“It’s a combination of two things, he is the physical specimen and he does have the state of mind which enables it,” the trainer said. “I’ve been blessed with it, he’s shown a confidence about him that separates him.”
Yes, Curlin is separated from his seven foes in the Woodward.
James Barry’s Divine Park rates as second choice behind the wonder horse. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, Divine Park would garner favoritism in most years. The Chester House colt won his first three starts last spring, then lost two in a row this winter, the Malibu at Santa Anita and the General George at Laurel. He went right back to winning, however, taking an Aqueduct allowance then rallying to win the Westchester April 30 and the Met Mile May 26.
“We’re a top horse and we should probably be undefeated. He had the tough trip out west, over the synthetic surface from the 14-hole off a nine-month layoff. And then we came back and broke through the (gate) in the race at Laurel,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve always been high on him. You can see that by me taking him out west in a Grade I off a nine-month layoff. His race in the Met Mile was a breakthrough and showed us what we thought he was all along.”
Not one to back down, McLaughlin is ready for the challenge.
“We passed on the Whitney because he wasn’t doing as well as I wanted him to do. So we scratched and aimed for this race,” McLaughlin said. “He’s doing great and we’re ready to go. I feel like we have the best chance to beat Curlin. We’re looking forward to taking on Curlin. He’s the best horse out there and it’s a good measuring stick to see where our horse ranks,”
Saratoga’s leading jockey Alan Garcia rides for Saratoga’s leading trainer.
“This would be the perfect send-off to what’s been a great meet so far,” McLaughlin said. “We have everything to gain and nothing to lose. We’ll go out there and run our race. He went two turns once at Aqueduct and I thought that was one of his best races.”
Trainer Bobby Frankel switches Grade II stakes winner Out Of Control from the turf to tackle Curlin. The 5-year-old son of Vettori just missed in the Manhattan, finishing second to Dancing Forever, but makes his first dirt start since last March, when third in a second-level allowance. John Velazquez rides for owner/breeder Stud TNT. Out Of Control put together a pair of bullet works as primers for his Grade I assault. He zipped 5 furlongs over the main track in one-minute flat Aug. 18 and duplicated the performance over the training track Aug. 25.
“He’s worked unbelievable the last two times,” Frankel said. “He can run on the dirt, he won two races at Santa Anita before it was switched. He’s a good horse, he’s got a shot.”
Loose Leaf vaults into the Woodward fresh off a third-level allowance victory just 17 days ago. The 4-year-old son of Notebook upset five rivals that day, his first start this year, and will have Eibar Coa aboard for the first time today. Trainer Ken McPeek has hunted big game before with the Stevestan Stables runner, chasing Street Sense in last year’s Travers and Chelokee in last year’s Northern Dancer.
“The horse is doing well, and he’s in good form so we figured we’d take a flyer. Strange things can happen in this game,” McPeek said. “I had a choice – I could have taken him to Monmouth to run him in an overnight stakes – but it’s still not a bad thing to run second or third in this race. He likes the track a lot and it’s easier just to walk him over there rather than ship him, so we’ll take a shot and see how it goes.”
Todd Pletcher removes blinkers from A. P. Arrow who was soundly beaten in the Whitney and the Suburban after running a decent fourth to Curlin in the Dubai World Cup. Cornelio Velasquez picks up the ride on the Allen Paulson Living Trust homebred. Winner of the Clark Handicap in November, A. P. Arrow stands as the second-leading earner in the field with $1.4 million.
Red-hot Eoin Harty – who won the Travers last Saturday and took second in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic a day later – takes a swing at Curlin with Darley’s Past The Point.
The 4-year-old son of Indian Charlie won a second-level allowance here Aug. 3, his most recent start. Edgar Prado takes the call on the three-time winner who hasn’t faced stakes competition since finishing third in last year’s Super Derby.
Any pace conversation starts with Stone Farm homebred Wanderin Boy. The Nick Zito-trained 7-year-old breaks from the outside under Julien Leparoux and will take the field through the early fractions.
The son of Seeking The Gold strolled in a money allowance at the meet, building his confidence after five straight losses against top stakes horses, including last year’s Woodward where he finished seventh behind Lawyer Ron. Wanderin Boy is one of three millionaires in the race.
Dr. D. F. C. will try to land a piece of today’s $500,000 pie while arriving latest of all. Trained by Rodrigo Ubillo and ridden by Aldo Arboleda, the hard-knocking New York-bred won the Solomon Northup here Aug. 9 and will make his first graded-stakes start in the Woodward.