Curlin: Oui, Oui

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It’s not exactly news now, but CURLIN looked every bit the best horse in the world with his authoritative win in last weekend’s Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Toting 128 pounds and making his first start since winning the Dubai World Cup, CURLIN, who was bottled up behind horses along the rail most of the way, found a seam at the top of the stretch and powered away from his overmatched opponents. He showed no signs of Post Dubai Syndrome, appearing as if the Mideast trip took nothing out of him. But rather than take a traditional route through the rest of the year, culminating in another Breeders’ Cup Classic, his connections are anxious to try him on turf with a possible run at the Arc de Triomphe in France this fall.

Although this is a very lofty plan, owner Jess Jackson has proved himself to be a true sportsman. By just keeping his very valuable commodity in training this year he is losing money, as well as risking injury to a colt whose worth as a stallion must be in the $50-60 million range. Curlin has some turf breeding and will test the grass in upcoming workouts before a planned grass start in the middle of July. If all goes well, next would be a possible start in the Arlington Million, and then bon voyage. If the grass experiment doesn’t work, there would be nothing wrong with coming back to defend his Classic title, although is seems clear that his connections are not anxious to run him over a synthetic surface. While a Curlin-Big Brown matchup looked so tantalizing just two short weeks ago, the chances seem pretty remote now. Plus, based on what we saw on back-to-back weekends, does anyone really doubt which is the better horse?

Post Triple Crown Thoughts: After thinking things through a little more, I’m not sure the five-week span between the three races is the most significant reason we haven’t seen a Triple Crown winner in 30 years. There have been 11 horses in history that won the Preakness and Belmont after failing in the Derby, including five since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. So if the grind is so taxing, why were Risen Star (’88), Hansel (’91), Tabasco Cat (’94), Point Given (’01) and Afleet Alex (’05) able to compete in all three events while being plenty strong for the final leg? In fact, thee of those winners—Risen Star, Point Give and Afleet Alex—romped home far in front of their nearest Belmont rivals. And don’t forget, Curlin ran great in all three legs last year. Factor in all the reasons (three different tracks at three different distances in five weeks, pedigree, injury, luck, human error), mix it all up and here’s my conclusion: For 30 years, we just haven’t had the right horse to do it.

NOTES: If you have followed the recent Congressional hearings on horse racing, you probably knew things weren’t off to a good start when committee chairwoman Jan Schakowsky opened up with comments like “horses are doped up on cocaine” and that ill-fated Eight Belles was a “genetic disaster”. Sheer ignorance…it looks more and more like LAVA MAN will duck out on trying to win his fourth straight Hollywood Gold Cup and wait for the Eddie Read at Del Mar. His connections, fearing a quick three-week turnaround, are in no hurry to take on HEATSEEKER…trainer Doug O’Neill has begun running his horses out of the detention barn (60 days), penalty for a high bicarbonates test from January…last Sunday’s Affirmed winner TWO STEP SALSA is the real deal for Julio Canani. Look for him to become a very important runner in the second half of the year…CEDAR MOUNTAIN loved the 1 3/4-mile distance in Saturday’s Round Table, romping home like a true stayer…recent Hall of Fame inductee Milo Valenzuela isn’t well enough to travel to Saratoga later this summer, so the Hall of Fame will come to him. Santa Anita will host his induction ceremony tomorrow night in the Chandelier Room.

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Another One Bites the Dust

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The next time someone tells you the result of an upcoming race is a “forgone conclusion”, run away, far away. We all know there is no such thing in this sport. But trainer Richard Dutrow had been so prophetic during this year’s Triple Crown run that you wanted to believe that is was a forgone conclusion that BIG BROWN would become the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. After all, he said his horse would win the Derby, picked the 20-post at the draw and bet a reported $100,000 on the nose. Bingo. He said the same thing would happen at the Preakness before ‘Brown toyed with his overmatched opposition. Dutrown even called out Japanese invader CASINO DRIVE, telling the media that his main foe wasn’t doing well and posed no threat a week before that one was eventually withdrawn on Belmont Day.

But as we’ve seen now 11 times since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, a Derby-Preakness parlay certainly does not ensure victory in the Belmont. There’s a reason only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown—it’s hard. When ‘Brown came up empty on the far turn and was correctly eased by Kent Desormeaux, I thought to myself, I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime. In the 1970′s, I watched Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed rattle off Triple Crowns like it was commonplace. Spectacular Bid should have joined those three but a safety pin and poor ride cost him his chance. Little did I know as a 15-year-old watching Affirmed nose out Alydar that I might not ever see another.

Affirmed was my favorite horse then and nothing has changed 30 years later, which led me to root against most of the last 11 Derby-Preakness winners trying to join him on the list of racing immortals. But I broke down in 2004 and rooted for Smarty Jones, who I thought was a terrific horse and very deserving of Triple Crown status, and I believed ‘Brown was an exceptional horse running against poor competition, which, despite his quarter crack issues, would indeed make him the next Triple Crown winner. But lo and behold, there was Nick Zito playing giant killer again, sending out DA’ TARA to pull off the front-running win in a painfully slow 2008 edition. I know one thing, the next time a horse goes for the Triple Crown, from a gambling perspective, I’m “all in” against that happening. History has proven once again that it’s a terrible betting proposition to take a short price in the Belmont.

Whatever the reason for ‘Brown’s poor performance last Saturday (pick one or more of the following choices: a) quarter crack b) missed training time c) third start in five weeks d) heat and humidity e) being taken off the anabolic steroid Winstrol in mid-April f) didn’t handle the track g) the Racing Gods had heard enough from Dutrow—particularly his comments about the way Smarty Jones had been trained and ridden leading up to the Belmont, and a snide comment about Curlin being beaten by a filly—and decided to teach him a lesson), I have been very disappointed in Dutrow’s comments and reactions since. I cut him some slack for shunning the media (“Don’t even think about it” was his response to one reporter trying to get an immediate post-race comment) directly following the race. He probably was in shock and concerned about the welfare of his horse, and he did meet with the media back at his barn later.

But what about his ludicrous comments in the past few days that blame Desormeaux? Since the horse has been checked out thoroughly and his connections can find no medical issue (unless it shows up later), the finger pointing has begun. According to Dutrow, “I don’t see the horse with a problem, so I have to direct my attention toward the ride. That’s all I can come up with…as along as the horse stays the way that I see him right now, then things are going to keep building up for me to know that it was the ride that did him in.” Say what? Did Dutrow even watch the race, or at least a replay? The horse was done, finished, cooked on the far turn. Anyone who has watched 20 races in his life could tell that much. Desormeaux, knowing the horse was going to finish last, wrapped up and eased him through the lane, protecting the horse and the sport from another major black eye. Can you just imagine if the jock had continued to ask and whip the beaten horse through the lane, only to have him break down in the stretch? So long horse racing, if that had happened. So, after praising and lauding Dutrow for his horsemanship and bombastic style up till now, the trainer showed his true colors in the face of adversity. Like so many before him have shown, it’s easy to be a good winner. Being a good loser takes something called class.

NOTES: Check out Bob Mieszerski’s excellent online article in Monday’s L A Times (,0,7065433.story). As Mieszerski so correctly notes, there doesn’t have to be a sinister explanation for everything in horse racing…LAVA MAN showed some of his old fight with a good third-place finish in the Saturday’s Whittingham Memorial at Hollywod Park. Put on the lead by new rider Tyler Baze, ‘MAN showed aggressiveness to open up a big lead, looked like he might get swallowed up by the field at the top of the lane, but dug in gamely is his best perfomance since last year’s HP Gold Cup. I have to admit, rather than retire and parade him on Gold Cup day (which I had written earlier), he deserves a shot at winning his fourth straight Gold Cup…favorite CHAMPS ELYSEES apparently came out of the race sick, showing a high white blood cell count and excessive mucus…in other stakes that day, MISTY OCEAN went wire-to-wire in the Honeymoon Handicap, PASSIFIED ($26.00) got no respect again but took the Redondo Beach, and REBELLION charged from far back to win the Ack Ack…there was one horse covered in the last race of Saturday’s Pick Six, meaning a return of $400,000 to a single-ticket holder when favorite DOWNTOWN LOVER got home…on Sunday, LETHAL HEAT stretched out and gamely won the Hollywood Oaks, running her record to four wins from five starts…her rider, Rafael Bejarano, holds a commanding 37-24 lead in the jockey standings…Doug O’Neill has a 16-12 lead among trainers.

Finally, the next time you hear a horse compared to Secretariat, here’s a piece of trivia: Big Red still holds three track records after being retired 35 years ago.

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