Yes, we’re back to Curlin again. Having watched grass racing and European racing for the past 40 years, here are my observations and conclusions, for whatever they’re worth, regarding Curlin’s Man o’War and his still-possible trip to Europe.
Curlin’s stride is not suited to the type of grass race we saw Saturday in the the Man o’War. His stride simply is too long for him to be able to quicken effectively from that far back, and similar tactics would prove to be fruitless in Europe against horses with a superior turn of foot. Take another son of Smart Strike, the diminutive English Channel. His stride was much shorter and quicker than Curlin’s and as a result he was able to demolish his field in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf by using a quick burst of speed to blow the race wide open.
Although Curlin doesn’t have that quickness and doesn’t seem to get hold of the grass quite like he does the dirt, that does not mean he is not capable of winning major races on the turf. For him to be effective, he has to be fairly close to the pace, where his stride and his ability to sustain a long run can be used to run his opponents into the ground the way another long-striding dirt horse did who was trying the grass late in his career. I’m referring to Secretariat, who closed out his career by winning the Man o’War and Canadian International. He won the Man o’War on the front end, running the smaller and quicker Tentam off his feet in course-record time, and then sat just off the pace in the Canadian International before opening up a 12-length lead in the stretch and coasting home from there. Once again, he simply ran his foes into submission in much the same manner he won the Belmont Stakes.
Both Curlin and Secretariat could win from far back, but they did it with that long, sustained run, which is not as easy to do on turf, where the best horses, especially in Europe, generally sit (preferably with cover), and then quickly accelerate when they see daylight. Those are the horses you have to get the jump on, and if you’re good enough you can separate yourself from them before they kick on the afterburners.
Curlin has those long strides that cover a ton of ground with little effort. But it has also resulted in late lead changes on occasion. Having to use those strides to quicken from far off the pace is not going to prove successful on the grass where his footing is a bit more tenuous. For him to beat the Europeans, he must take away their closing punch, and in order to do that he has to make them run faster early. He then can kick for home, while their powerful late punch will be compromised. That, of course, will work only if he possesses the necessary staying power to get away with those tactics.
Whether Curlin has that staying power is up to his connections to decide. He’s been defeated in his only two races beyond 1 1/4 miles, so that has to be taken into consideration, which is why I still feel the 10-furlong Irish Champion Stakes is a better fit. A big win there would give Curlin the international superstar status Jess Jackson and Steve Asmussen are looking for, and still give them the option of trying the Arc if they so desire. If he travels all the way to France just for an experimental race like the Prix Foy, which is usually not a truly run race, and fails again, then they wasted a lot of time for nothing.
If you’re going to go down, go down in a race like the Irish Champion, which suits his style better and where there is a much better chance for fast ground than in the Arc. And if you’re going to win, win a race like the Irish Champion, not the group II Foy, which usually attracts several red-hot Arc contenders anyway. So, he’d have to beat top-class French colts who have had the entire summer off and then come back in three weeks and beat them again, as well as the 3-year-olds prepping in the Prix Niel the same day and the best from England, Ireland, and Germany. He won’t be remembered for winning only the Prix Foy. If you climb Mt. Hood in Oregon to prepare for an assault on Mt. Everest, it’s an accomplishment, but it means little if you can’t make it up Everest. Can Curlin scale a mountain like the Arc? It’s possible if he can run the way Alleged did in his two Arc victories in 1977 and ‘78, which is to be right up with the leaders and kick on from there and separate yourself from the field.
Wherever he runs in Europe, there is always the distinct possibility he’ll have to go up against an Aidan O’Brien rabbit. But there is a way to get around that. You just ignore the rabbit and lock horns with the horse or horses you have to beat, just as Fantastic Light did with Galileo in the 2001 Irish Champion Stakes when both horses had pacesetters. In their previous meeting in the King George, Fantastic Light sat back in ninth, just behind Galileo, but didn’t have the closing kick to catch Galileo in the stretch. In the Irish Champion, he was always just ahead of Galileo and was able to maintain that short lead to the wire in a furious stretch battle. Had Curlin matched strides with Red Rocks behind the two runaway leaders in the Man o’War instead of spotting him four lengths, he could have gotten the jump on him and wouldn’t have needed a turn of foot to catch him.
Now, let’s go in another direction and assume Jackson decides the grass is not for Curlin. Then what? Then how about circling Aug. 30 on their calendar. That’s the date of the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. It gives Curlin a bit of rest following two post-Dubai races. It’s also four weeks after the Haskell Invitational, giving Big Brown an extra week if his connections feel the Travers is coming back a bit too quick. There it is, your Horse of the Year showdown, just like in the Woodwards of old. OK, it’s only a mile and an eighth, but a good distance for both horses, and it’s Saratoga, where 70,000 people could show up for a match-up of that magnitude. If that’s not enough, it’s still early enough for both colts to then go their separate ways – Big Brown to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Curlin back to the turf if they wish. If Curlin beats Big Brown he would basically sew up Horse of the Year regardless of what happens in the BC Classic. That would give his connections the luxury of sending him to the Arc without any ramifications if he should fail. No one will hold it against him if he loses, and they will be commended for showing unprecedented sportsmanship by going for Horse of the Year and Horse of the World.
As mentioned in my last blog, the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs is also still out there at the end of November in case both parties agree to a grudge match. So, there are numerous possibilities to ponder.
A note must be made about the enthusiastic ovation Curlin received in the paddock before the Man o’War. But even more special were the cheers after the race as he returned to be unsaddled. Now that’s what you call appreciation, especially in New York. Even Better Talk Now’s trainer Graham Motion joined in the applause.
Harlem Rocker looked good winning the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Saturday. With Notional running a huge race in the previous week’s Salvator Mile, we could have two talented horses to look forward to the rest of the year. But, unfortunately, you can likely add both of them to the growing list of Breeders’ Cup Classic no-shows, along with Curlin and Pyro and I’m sure others. Forget the pros and cons of synthetic surfaces, and even the safety issues, which have still not been fully resolved. Strictly from a racing standpoint, it’s simply not good for the sport when you have owners and trainers of some of the nation’s top stars boycotting the Breeders’ Cup because of its surface. The Breeders’ Cup had to know something like this was inevitable, but California was one of the few venues available for them, so we’re all just going to have to live with it and make the best of it…this year and next year.
How amazing a roll is IEAH Stables on? There doesn’t seem to be a weekend that goes by that they don’t win a major stakes race, and they’ve done it with several trainers. It will be interesting to see what happens when it comes time to vote for the Eclipse Awards. Despite all the controversies that have surrounded IEAH and their main trainer Rick Dutrow, they have been able to counterpunch with several positive deeds of their own to benefit the sport, and they just keep winning stakes, so the racing gods (if you believe in the ethereal) certainly have no problem with them. It is hoped that when the Eclipse ballots are distributed, voters will look at only what is in the attached supplement. What they will see are IEAH horses on almost page of the past performances and their name atop the leading owners list.
Oh, by the way, Big Brown breezed five furlongs in 1:01 1/5 this morning.