There is no doubt that Curlin is the star of the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) this year, but his nearly white sidekick Pancho has won his share of hearts, too.
Some employees of the Dubai Racing Club have posted photos showing both Pancho and Curlin in their offices and have launched an unofficial Pancho Fan Club for the big 16-year-old Quarter Horse.
“When they say that, I act like I don’t hear it—but I have heard it,” said a bemused Scott Blasi, the assistant trainer for Curlin who rides Pancho in the mornings when they accompany the Horse of the Year to the racetrack.
Don’t get Blasi wrong. In fact, he has been Pancho’s biggest fan ever since trainer Steve Asmussen purchased the gelding from sales consignor Jerry Bailey and turned him over to Blasi, who has been his caretaker ever since.
“He’s been the stable mascot for eight years now—and he’s the greatest. Pancho is irreplaceable,” Blasi declared.
Curlin also is fond of Pancho. When he gallops or works in the mornings, the flaming chestnut seems to look for the stout and snowy pony, often pulling himself up by cantering directly over to where Pancho and Blasi are waiting.
For his part, Pancho seems to sense when it is time to start moving in order to meet Curlin following his work, Blasi said, often going on his own initiative at just the right time.
Pancho is patient with both humans and horses. Blasi said he can hoist anyone aboard Pancho’s broad back, and has even put all three of Asmussen’s young sons on the pony at one time, with no objection or unruly behavior displayed by the gelding.
Indeed, Pancho is so well mannered and trained that Blasi has been able to just leave him, ground tied as the expression goes, while schooling Curlin in weekly sessions at the starting gate in Dubai. Pancho would just wait, often nonchalantly nuzzling around in the dirt while Curlin loaded, stood like a statue and backed out.
“I’m just so amazed at the professionalism of Curlin—and Pancho is comic relief. To look over from the gate and see Pancho ground tied and eating dirt is so funny,” said Jim Cornes, stable coordinator for the Dubai Racing Club who has watched much of Curlin’s training.
And Pancho is so large that his physical presence tends to calm racehorses as well as discourage them from trying anything untoward.
“You can tell Curlin relaxes when Pancho is by his side,” Blasi said. “Curlin is so big, but Pancho doesn’t get intimidated. He’s even bigger than Curlin and he’s so seasoned—he’s been everywhere with the stable.
“They know each other well,” he continued. “I really think they could do their morning work without us.”
Pancho and Curlin also share at least one characteristic. Blasi said both horses love to eat.
Whenever someone comes into their barn, Pancho actually “begs for food,” he related. Corinne Heiligbrodt, who along with her husband Bill has campaigned many horses with Asmussen for years, used to visit the barn at Saratoga Race Course and feed Pancho burritos, Blasi said.
In Dubai, Pancho has feasted on donuts brought to him by Toni Hodge, Dubai World Cup quarantine manager.
“He loves them,” Hodge said. “He’s gotten very spoiled. He flirts with me every morning because I’m his sweets girl.
“They could sell him in a heartbeat over here,” she added. “Everyone loves him.”
But Pancho’s destiny is to stay with Curlin, whose principal owner Jess Jackson hopes can establish himself as one of the great racehorses of our era. If he does, history should remember the white companion who walked by his side along the way.