Jess Jackson is to be commended for his pioneer spirit by venturing into uncharted lands in order to expand the horizons of his superstar Curlin, as well as the sport.
His trainer, Steve Asmussen, has mapped out an early course for Curlin’s assault on the history books. With his first workout over the turf a success, he now turns his attention to either the Man o’War Stakes at Belmont or the Arlington Handicap, both run on July 12. As of now, it looks as if the Man o’ War is the target, as long as the Curlin’s licensing issues get resolved by then.
Although some were not enamored with his work, based mostly on time, I thought he looked terrific. His stride was long and fluid, and he seemed to be bouncing off the turf as if he were relishing it. With even the slightest amount of encouragement he would have buried his workmate.
With an ambitious voyage to Europe his ultimate goal, it would seem that Belmont’s wide, sweeping turns would prepare him better for European-style racing. Arlington can boast of an excellent turf course, and probably would provide a more festive atmosphere, but the grade I Man o’War would give Curlin a stiffer test, with the venerable old warrior Better Talk Now heading there, as well as European invader Red Rocks, which means Curlin will have to face two Breeders’ Cup Turf winners in his grass debut. This at least will give Asmussen and Jackson an idea how Curlin stands up against grade/group I turf horses in the U.S. and Europe.
It is what comes after July 12 that is of greater interest. It has been stated all along that the main target is Europe’s most coveted prize, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp on Oct. 5. This race is often run on testing ground over an equally testing mile and a half undulating course, with a long uphill run leading to the descent around a huge sweeping turn. Then comes the tricky little false stretch that has caused many a jockey blunder over the years. It can appear to someone unfamiliar with the course to be the actual stretch, but in reality it is a short straightaway leading into the main stretch. It is easy to move prematurely at that point and lose your position. Even a three-wide move on the false stretch will often result in a horse getting fanned extremely wide turning for home. Bill Shoemaker made a big outside move with Tom Rolfe on the false stretch in the 1965 Arc, and although he seemed to be in good striking position heading into the main stretch, he got hung out in no man’s land and quickly retreated to finish a well-beaten sixth behind the great Sea Bird.
For that reason, it might be a good idea to consider a switch to a top European jockey or at least make sure Albarado has several, and I mean several, mounts prior to the Arc. No matter how talented an American jockey is, riding in the Arc is a totally different ballgame. Steve Cauthen, who rode in Europe for years and won every major Derby, never won the Arc. Cash Asmussen, who was based in France and rode for most of the major stables, managed to win the Arc once with the top-class Suave Dancer. So, it’s a difficult task, especially for a jockey who is not familiar with the course.
But Asmussen no doubt will stay with Albarado, and he will have one thing going for him, and that is familiarity with the horse. When Jack Price sent Carry Back to the Arc in 1962, he used British jockey Scobie Breasley, who did not like the horse and had no confidence in him. As a result, he rode him terribly.
There is no way to prepare an American horse for Longchamp other than a prep in the Prix Foy, which often results in a phony race, run at a snail’s pace, as does its 3-year-old counterpart the Prix Niel. The fields normally are small and Arc hopefuls on most occasions will just sit and sit and run only the final furlong or so. Other times, horses will go so slow up front they keep going and are difficult to catch. No one with a serious Arc contender pushes their horse too hard trying to win the Foy with the big race looming in three weeks.
When Ogden Phipps sent Intrepid Hero to the Arc in 1975, he had him train out on Long Island, going up and down hill around right-handed bends. But Intrepid Hero simply was not world-class caliber and could finish no better than ninth.
So, what is the best plan of attack for Curlin? The answer actually may be simple. There is another race run in Europe on Sept. 6 that is a perfect fit for Curlin, and that is the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardsown, which served as an excellent prep for last year’s Arc winner Dylan Thomas. What makes the Irish Champion even more appealing is its record as a Breeders’ Cup prep, with past winners including High Chaparral, Fantastic Light, Daylami, Giant’s Causeway, and Swain.
In Curlin’s case, the Irish Champion is much closer to American-style racing with its left-handed turns and run over a course configured more like an American track. The ground, although not flat by any means, is more level than Longchamp, and it is a mile and a quarter instead of a mile and a half. But the most important factor in its favor is that the Irish Champion has become such a prestigious race in its own right that winning it would vault Curlin into the stratosphere of racing superstardom before he even has to run in the Arc. And a victory probably would be make him more coveted as a stallion prospect in America than winning the Arc. A victory at Leopardstown also would give Jackson and Asmussen the option of going for broke and continuing on to the Arc – with plenty of time to prep for it at Chantilly -- or coming home a hero with an Irish Champion victory added to Curlin’s already jewel-studded belt.
By returning from Europe a victor in a great race like the Irish Champion, Curlin could then take a little break and point for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. A victory there would make him the first Classic-Turf winner ever, a feat that may never be duplicated. Just imagine a horse winning an American classic (Preakness), the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Irish Champion Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Turf. He would set new standards of greatness and versatility on an international scale never before seen. Even if he loses the Irish Champion, but runs big, he’d still have an opportunity make amends in the Arc if his connections are determined to try to come away with a European group I victory.
Whatever they wind up doing, they’ve pushed all the right buttons so far, including the bold move of sending Curlin to Dubai for a prep race and an extended stay in order to acclimate. Despite the risk of a reverse Euro bounce or possibly running too big a race in his prep, Curlin managed to cruise home in the prep, the Jaguar Trophy under 132 pounds, and in the Dubai World Cup, writing a new chapter in preparing an American horse for the richest race in the world.
Now he faces bigger challenges in Europe. Can he beat the Europeans by simply out-pacing them for speed in much the same way Braulio Baeza knocked off the previously unbeaten Brigadier Gerard with Roberto in the inaugural Benson & Hedges Cold Cup at York in 1972? Or does he try to use those humongous strides of his to out-grind them? One-paced horses often are successful in the Arc, as they can be at Leopardstown. Or does he try to out-close them? That is extremely difficult for an American to do, especially on the Euros’ home turf. No matter how fast an American horse closes, there are usually at least one or two Europeans who will close faster.
So far, there has been nothing in Europe to strike fear in the hearts of Curlin’s connections, with the year being totally dominated by Aidan O’Brien, who followed up his English and Irish 2,000 Guineas victories with Henrythenavigator and his four group I victories at Royal Ascot with wins in the Group I Irish Derby and Eclipse Stakes.
The early favorite for the Arc with the British bookmakers, however, is a French filly, the Aga Khan’s unbeaten French Oaks and French 1,000 Guineas winner Zarkava (yes, we’re all aware Curlin is 0-for-1 against fillies going a mile and a half). With English Derby winner New Approach scratched from the Irish Derby with a late injury, we won’t know much about him until he shows up again, likely against older horses in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. The Irish Derby, won by the O’Brien-trained longshot Frozen Fire, did not turn out to be a strong race, with O’Brien’s main hope, Alessandro Volta, wiping out two contenders, including English Derby runner-up and favorite Tartan Bearer.
O’Brien has the leading older horse in Duke of Marmalade, who has been re-born this year, winning three group I’s after playing the perennial bridesmaid role last year. Although he looks to be a 10-furlong horse and is unproven over a mile and a half, O’Brien said he’s being pointed for the King George, along with Hardwicke Stakes winner Macarthur. The Duke would look to be perfectly suited for the Breeders’ Cup Classic over a synthetic surface. Soldier of Fortune, another O’Brien star, and Youmzain are beginning a nice little rivalry, exchanging victories in the Coronation Cup and Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, but Soldier of Fortune will skip the King George for whatever reasons and aim for a fall campaign. Youmzain came within a head of springing an 80-1 shocker in last year’s Arc against Dylan Thomas, despite having run second to the O’Brien star in the King George. For now, that is basically it, with Saturday’s Eclipse Stakes won in a close finish by O’Brien’s Mount Nelson. So, we’re not dealing with a Montjeu or a Peintre Celebre this year, or even a Hurricane Run, a Sakhee or a Dylan Thomas. That may change, but at this point there is no one horse that should scare Curlin away.
Wherever Curlin winds up running, it should be an interesting second half of the season.