Why Curlin Will Run in the Classic

Actually, I have nothing concrete to back that up other than a line from a movie. And it sounded like a good head. But, really, when Jess Jackson opened the door after the Woodward, saying he’s going to have trainers like Dick Mandella keep him informed about the Santa Anita surface, it gave racing fans a ray of hope that maybe it could happen.

With the Classic door now ajar, I can’t help but think of a line in the Academy Award-winning picture “In the Heat of the Night.” Bear with me on this one; I’m taking a circuitous route to get where I’m going.

Police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) all but forces Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) to leave Sparta, Miss. after an unsolved murder, because he’s black and a heck of a lot smarter than they are. When Gillespie is told by the mayor, who is pressured by the victim’s wife, to make sure Tibbs stays on the case, Steiger tracks him down at the train station and tries different methods, but is unable to convince him to stay. Finally, he says to him:

“I’m tellin’ you that you're gonna stay…because you’re so damned smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don't think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.”

The more I think of that passage, the more I wonder if Jess Jackson can pass up showing IEAH Stables and Rick Dutrow. Will he be able to live with himself if he doesn’t at least attempt to “put them all to shame” after Dutrow’s brazen comments and being called out by Mike Iavarone. To quote Gillespie -- just substituting names: “You wanna know something, Jess? I don’t think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.”

Hey, it worked for Gillespie.

I’m not even saying Curlin should run in the Breeders’ Cup. I respect whatever decision Jackson makes and can understand his not wanting to run in the Classic this year. The fact is, neither horse is ducking the other; it’s just a difference in philosophy, nothing more. Each one wants to run against the other but on their terms – Big Brown’s people want the Breeders’ Cup; Curlin’s people want a traditional dirt race. Neither is right and neither is wrong. With that said, would I like to see Curlin in the Classic? Heck, yes, just like everyone else. Considering that Curlin didn’t exactly have jaws dropping over his performance in the Woodward, maybe a switch to synthetic actually would be something he would relish. Who knows?

Look, the bottom line is Curlin won the Woodward, which is the most important thing. But now comes the question: is this as good as he is right now or did he need the Woodward after a seven-week layoff and a 1 3/8-mile turf race to set him up for a scintillating performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup? Another performance like the Woodward, in which he closed his final eighth in :14 to defeat a 40-1 shot who was coming home his last three-eighths in almost :40, and a switch to synthetic might start looking more attractive.

And what better way to end his career than to knock off Big Brown, possibly Commentator, the best synthetic track horses in the country, Japan’s Casino Drive, and a powerful arsenal from Europe, including Aidan O’Brien’s dynamic duo of Duke of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator, who have won nine Group I stakes this year between them, and English Derby winner New Approach. As Iavarone said, “That would be electric. He has to run in the Classic.”

Well, Jackson doesn’t have to do anything, but when decision time comes, can he let an opportunity like that pass by? What if in Curlin there is a super duper synthetic specialist just waiting to emerge? By the way, Virgil Tibbs did stay and got the job done. And it all ended with an Eclipse, I mean Academy Award.

Jackson has announced that the Jockey Club Gold Cup will be Curlin’s next start, but didn’t mention anything beyond that.

If Jackson does reject the Virgil Tibbs theory, he has basically one option, unless he’s serious about taking a huge gamble and going for the Japan Cup Dirt over a track that normally is like a sandbox. That option is to commit after the Gold Cup to meet Big Brown in the Clark Handicap, which has been suggested here before. That still seems like the most natural place to decide Horse of the Year, even though it’s not as glamorous as the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And even if both horses do run in the Classic, there is no reason why they can’t have a rematch in the Clark four weeks later to settle matters on the dirt.

As for the possibility of sending Curlin to Japan, it is worth noting that 13 horses from the U.S. have competed in the Japan Cup Dirt and 11 of them have finished out of the money. The only winner, Fleetstreet Dancer, won by a nose on a sloppy track. To send a horse who has already traveled to Dubai this year for an extended stay all the way to Japan for a race on Dec. 7 (gee, that date sounds familiar)) to run on such a deep track, that would seem as much or even more of a gamble than trying a synthetic surface.

Curlin Strategy Room

Could it be that the Woodward strategy employed by 40-1 longshot Past the Point provided the formula on how to be competitive with and possibly even defeat Curlin?

First, let’s look at Curlin himself. He is a physical monster – an imposing horse with a massive stride that enables him to run his opponents into the ground. He can just gallop you to death. In the Woodward, that stride wasn’t evident in the stretch. The long extension was missing, and he won the race on will and class more than anything. So, what happened?

Well, here is one theory. Excluding the Preakness, which I’ll get to later, these are Curlin’s previous six-furlong splits: 1:12 3/5, 1:13, 1:12 2/5, 1:15 2/5, 1:12 1/5, 1:12, 1:13 4/5, and 1:14. In last year’s Haskell, in which he finished a dull third, he ran his three-quarters in about 1:11, substantially faster than his other races. In the Woodward, he ran his three-quarters in 1:10 4/5, some three full seconds faster than he ran in his previous two races, and again, substantially faster than all his other races.

So, is Curlin more effective when he doesn’t have to run a fast split for the first three-quarters? When you go slow early, it bunches up the field and puts Curlin within striking distance, which enables him to lay all over you and merely out-pace you to the wire as he did in the Dubai world Cup and Stephen Foster. He just keeps coming and coming, and that’s when he draws off and wins by daylight. It’s just too difficult to match strides with him. Rags to Riches did in the Belmont, but who knows how much the Triple Crown grind combined with a lack of an early racing foundation affected him.

When you run fast early and stretch out the field, it makes Curlin come from farther back and at the same time make a longer and quicker run than he’s used to. Instead of one-pacing you into submission, he is forced to use his speed and make a long sustained run just to make up the ground you’ve put between you and him. That in turn could very well take some of the starch out of his stretch run. If Past the Point, a horse who had only run in one stakes in his career, could almost pull off the upset, what would have happened had a top-class stakes horse with good speed and staying power used those same tactics; one who could have come home in :13 or even :13 2/5 instead of :14 1/5.

In the Dubai World Cup Curlin was right up near the pace in a bunched up field and had an extremely long stretch to draw off from his opponents. That is Curlin’s kind of race. In the Foster, he sat two lengths off a 1:13 2/5 three-quarters and drew off in the stretch. In last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, he was able to sit three lengths off a 1:11 3/5 three-quarters, still putting him in his 1:12 1/5 comfort zone. If Lawyer Ron had stretched out the field and made Curlin run a 1:10 4/5, as he did in the Woodward, sure he wouldn’t have as much left at the end, but neither would Curlin. And Curlin would then have had to make up seven lengths instead of three lengths.

This is not meant as a knock on Curlin. He is an exceptional horse who has done exceptional things. But most every major star has a certain weapon or weapons they use, and it’s the job of the opposition to takes those weapons away if possible. Past the Point was able to take Curlin’s main weapon away by blazing a hot trail in front of him and almost pulled off a monumental upset. Yes, Curlin had a rough trip early, which cost him position, but by the backstretch he was out in the clear and running well in hand. He just was given more to do than he likes because he was running faster early than he likes.

This is not to say Curlin can’t beat you staying close to a fast pace, it’s just that he’s never done it before. And I’m just throwing a theory out there based on his past fractional times. In last year’s Preakness, they went 1:09 4/5, with Curlin running a 1:11 1/5. This was the one instance where he won despite going faster than he likes. But that pace cooked Hard Spun, who got stirred up down the backstretch when steered to the outside and took off, making a premature move to the lead. He pretty much collapsed in the stretch, finishing a distant fourth. Curlin was left having to beat another closer in Street Sense and ran the race of his life to rally late and win by a head. In my opinion that is still the best race he’s ever run. It’ll be interesting to see if he can win in that manner again.

One final note: According to the New York Post, there wasn’t a single breakdown on the Saratoga dirt track all meet. The only breakdown of the entire meet occurred on the grass. So, congratulations to NYRA and the track maintenance crew for that. Meanwhile, according to the North County Times and DRF, eight horses died on the Polytrack at the recently concluded Del Mar meet – five in the afternoon and three in the morning…an increase of two from last year.

Off to Kentucky Sunday. See you in a couple of weeks.

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