I wasn't at Belmont Park on Saturday to witness Curlin's turf debut, but I sure wish I was. Based on my conversations with friends who were, it was a very special atmosphere - one that doesn't come around too often this day and age.
The 2007 Horse of the Year was applauded by adoring fans in the paddock, when he came onto the track, throughout the Man o' War and even after he came up short to Red Rocks. Not that I wasn't aware of this before yesterday, but he truly is a beloved figure across the country. I first realized that when he was brought out for fans at this year's Kentucky Derby and given a standing ovation. It was a great moment.
Curlin is racing's version of a rock star. And we haven't had one of those for a while - at least one who raced beyond the age of three.
The fact that Curlin did not win in his first test on turf didn't matter all that much. Sure it was disappointing to fans, but the important thing was that we got to see him run, and he generated excitement. How much do we need this after the year we've had?
I've been preaching this for a while, just as many of you have been too, but the single biggest problem we have in racing right now is that we don't get to see our superstars run as older horses. I am confident that new medication rules will be in place soon and we will figure out how to keep our horses safer. That part of racing is headed in the right direction. What I don't think we'll have an answer for any time soon is how to solve the dilemma of retiring our superstars after their 3-year-old season. It is absolutely killing our sport.
Point Given, War Emblem, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Bernardini, Street Sense, Hard Spun, and pretty soon, Big Brown. Just off the top of my head, these are horses that the public would have flocked to the track to see as older horses, but were, or will be retired, after their 3-year-old season. Of course, this list does not count Barbaro and Rags to Riches, whose injuries robbed all of us of what was sure to be more greatness.
Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of older horses who are doing great things this year. This past weekend alone got see 5-year-olds Benny the Bull and Kip Deville win big races. Both of them are very fun to watch and seem to be getting better with age. Later today we get to see exciting mares Hystericalady and Unbridled Belle square off in the Delaware Handicap. In fact, there are a lot of older horses - especially those that race on the turf - that generate excitement around the country.
But in America we love our Classic horses. They are the ones that captivate us. The ones that we give standing ovations to in the paddock. That actually get air time on Sportscenter when they race. We need them.
The question is, how can we get more of them to race as older horses? The solution remains unclear. As a writer, I'm not about to criticize an owner for retiring a horse when they are being offered $40-50 million. How can you walk away from that kind of money?
One suggestion which has been bandied about is for racing to pass a rule that says no horse can be bred until age 5. It will solve the racing problem and also help to strengthen horses from a breeding aspect, which has also come under fire recently. On paper, it sounds great. Realistically, it has little chance of happening. We would need a unified governing body to even start thinking about it. Let's not go down that road...
So until then, we're just going to have to enjoy Curlin for the rest of his career, which will most likely be only three or four more races. From a selfish standpoint, I hope they move him back to the dirt so we can all see his last race here, not in Japan or France. After all, it might be a long time before we see another rock star.