No one can really predict Hall of Fame greatness after one start, but there have been a number of fortunate trainers who have had the thrill of foreseeing potential greatness in a young horse. Most of those visions, however, fade away after their sure-fire star descends into mediocrity.
But on a rare occasion the images take shape just as they envisioned and greatness becomes reality. On even rarer occasions, projected greatness becomes reality, but for someone else.
On Feb. 3, 2007, Helen Pitts, longtime assistant trainer for Kenny McPeek, and her assistant and lead exercise rider Hanne Jorgensen, both saw those visions of greatness as they watched their unraced 3-year-old Curlin demolish a maiden field at Gulfstream by nearly 13 lengths, running the seven furlongs in a snappy 1:22 1/5, earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. Unfortunately for Pitts, others with deep pockets were watching as well.
Pitts had taken over most of the horses trained by her old boss after McPeek announced he was giving up his stable, at least for a while, to pursue other avenues in racing, mainly bloodstock work. It was McPeek who had picked out Curlin as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale for $57,000. The son of Smart Strike had an OCD lesion removed from his left ankle as a weanling, and it wasn’t a pretty sight at the sale. Although it turned off most buyers, McPeek felt it would be a non-issue. When his buyers, Shirley Cunningham and Bill Gallion, balked about having to spend $57,000 on a horse with physical issues that no one wanted, McPeek offered to take the colt back and find another client. He felt the colt was a steal at that price and believed he would have gone for $300,000 if his ankle didn’t look so unappealing. Eventually, Cunningham and Gallion decided to keep him.
Pitts had already shown a good deal of success with the McPeek horses and appeared to be a new major force in training. Jorgensen had exercised and taken care of Sarava every day at Belmont Park prior to his shocking victory in the 2002 Belmont Stakes at odds of 70-1 until McPeek arrived several days before the race. When Pitts went out on her own, Jorgensen, who had become a good friend, went with her.
After spending several years focusing on bloodstock work, McPeek decided he wanted to get back to training and politicked to get Curlin, but Cunningham and Gallion had already promised him to Pitts and didn’t want to renege on their word.
Curlin was sent to Gail Garrison, manager of Cunningham’s Hillcrest Farm near Lexington, and he immediately began working on the colt’s physical problems. Curlin was at the farm for 60 days, where he was turned out in a paddock and allowed to eat grass each day. Garrison could see he was still a “big, playful kid who was full of vinegar.” He just needed time to grow up and settle into that big effortless stride of his.
Finally, he was sent to Pitts, and it didn’t take long for her and Jorgensen to start seeing those visions of greatness. When Jorgensen worked him, she came back and told Pitts, “I’ve never sat on a horse like this before.”
On July 29, 2006, the Southern Legislative Conference convened at Churchill Downs, where the legislators were treated to a night at the races, which included three exhibition races. When Churchill Downs' senior vice president of racing, Donnie Richardson, asked Pitts to help out and put a couple of her 2-year-olds in the races, she chose Curlin, who wound up finishing third behind the Bernie Flint-trained Speedway, who had already broken his maiden by three lengths, but was still green and needed more experience.
Riding Curlin that night was Hanne Jorgensen’s husband, Mick Jenner. They had been going together for several years when they faced each other as competitors in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Jenner was the regular exercise rider for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. But it was Jorgensen who got the better of that battle, winning the Belmont with the little-regarded Sarava.
Jenner recalled his ride aboard Curlin that night at Churchill Downs. “Curlin had worked a couple of half-miles, but he was just a big ol' 2-year-old who had never been asked to do anything at that point,” he said. “Everything he'd done was on the bit. The race was only a quarter of a mile and he was bucking and rearing, and I was hanging on for dear life. So I not only got Curlin beat, I got him well beat.”
As Curlin matured he began to convince Pitts and Jorgensen that he could be something special. They were expecting big things first time out, as, apparently, was everyone else, as Curlin was sent off as the 2-1 favorite. For a new trainer like Pitts, it’s a very fine line between joy and dread when a young 3-year-old runs off the screen in his debut. The crashing sound you usually hear afterwards is that of the rich folks breaking open their piggy banks. You know the million-dollar offers are going to start pouring in for that brilliant ready-made Derby horse, and that a sale is most likely going to result in the horse being given to the buyer’s trainer, especially if he’s Pletcher or Asmussen or Mott or Baffert.
So, when Curlin rocked the Derby trail in his debut, Pitts knew there was a good chance she could lose the horse. Ironically, at the time of Curlin’s victory, Steve Asmussen just happened to be stabled in her barn, preparing Leprechaun Racing’s Gunfight for the 6 1/2-furlong Swale Stakes, his only starter at the meet. Asmussen had recently lost his big Derby horse, Tiz Wonderful, owned by Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, to injury and had no idea how he was going to replace a horse of that caliber, one who was undefeated and had already won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Because Asmussen was stabled in Pitts’ barn, he had gotten to see Curlin close up on a daily basis and was impressed with everything he saw. When Curlin romped in his debut, it set the wheels in motion. Watching the race on simulcast at the Ocala Breeders 2-year-old sale was John Moynihan, who was Jess Jackson’s bloodstock manager. Watching from his home in San Francisco was owner George Bolton. Both had the same reaction – “Wow!” Asmussen after seeing the race, watched the colt cool out and said to himself, “We’ve got to get that horse.”
Bolton contacted someone at the Ragozin Sheets and found out Curlin had run a “5 3/4," an extraordinary number for a first-time starter. The pieces were beginning to come together.
Moynihan knew that the offers would start to pour in for the colt, so he drove down to Gulfstream to see the horse and then contacted Cunningham and Gallion. As he figured, an offer had already come in, this one from Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, who offered $1.75 million, but, as Irwin put it, his bid was “blown out of the water” by subsequent bids. As it turned out, there were 15 bids on the horse, each with different stipulations.
Cunningham and Gallion wanted to stay in for a minority interest, and the day after the race, Super Bowl Sunday, Moynihan began negotiations, representing Jackson, Bolton, and another interested party, Satish Sanan. By 2 a.m. Monday morning, the deal was completed.
Although Cunningham and Gallion had received larger offers for the whole horse, the Moynihan group’s selling point was allowing them to stay in as minority partner.
The only thing left to be done was for Moynihan to look at Curlin on the racetrack to see how he had come out of the race and to make sure he was sound. So, Pitts brought him to the track that morning and when Curlin began bucking and squealing, the deal was finalized for a reported $3.5 million. That would be the last time Pitts would lead him to the track.
Asmussen was delighted, having found his Derby horse. He felt everything was meant to be, because if Tiz Wonderful hadn’t gotten hurt, Jackson would not have been looking for a Derby horse to replace him, and, as he put it, he’d be trying to figure out how to beat Curlin instead of training him.
Pitts and Jorgensen were devastated, especially having to watch their dream horse depart after devoting so much time and effort getting him through some physical issues and becoming so close to him.
“I cried my eyes out when they sold him,” Jorgensen said shortly after the sale. “We babied him for such a long time. He bucked his shins twice and we tried to get him through it and worked hard with him. And then, one big race and he’s gone. We felt he was something special before he even started, we really did. I understand it’s hard to turn down that kind of money, and they did keep a piece of him, so it wasn’t hard for them. But it’s hard for us, because you get so attached to them.”
Curlin, of course, set off on his meteoric rise to stardom, winning the Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths and the Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths before finishing an excellent third in the Kentucky Derby after encountering traffic problems at a key point in the race. It was a terrific effort considering it was only the fourth start of his life, and the last horse to win the Derby with only three starts was Regret in 1915.
Pitts and Jorgensen, meanwhile, had to move on, and they did have a very talented horse in the barn named Einstein. And it was Einstein, also owned by Cunningham and Gallion’s Midnight Cry Stable, who brought Pitts to Pimlico on Preakness Day to saddle the horse in the Dixie Stakes on the grass. As if it weren’t tough enough being stabled near Curlin and watching all the media flock to him and the Derby winner Street Sense, she had to then endure the unthinkable.
When Einstein, second choice at 5-2, moved up to challenge down the backstretch in the Dixie, a horse went down in front of him, causing Einstein to stumble so badly, he unseated jockey Robby Albarado, who was also Curlin’s rider. So, here was Pitts having to watch Einstein run loose the rest of the race, returning with a grabbed quarter.
But her emotionally draining day was far from over. She then retreated to the hospitality tent at the end of the stakes barn and watched Curlin, who appeared to be beaten at the top of stretch, stage a sensational late rally to win the Preakness by a head over Street Sense. Although she wanted only the best for Curlin, having to suffer the anguish of Einstein’s misfortune and then see her dream horse win a classic for someone else had to tug hard at her emotions.
“I have mixed feelings,” Pitts said following the Preakness. She was trying hard to say the right things, but it was obvious she was struggling to deal with her feelings, especially having to deal with the trauma of the Dixie and Einstein’s injury.
“I really don’t want to say anything,” she added. “I’m just happy for Steve and Scott (Asmussen’s assistant Scott Blasi). Horses like this are hard to come by, and I feel honored to have been a part of him at some point. But what can you do? It’s hard.”
Curlin, of course, would go on to a Hall of Fame career, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup twice, Woodward Stakes, and Stephen Foster Handicap.
Pitts would be rewarded in the end, as Einstein took her on a magical journey of his own, racing until he was 7 and winning five grade I stakes, including the Santa Anita Handicap, and placing in five other grade Is, while earning over $2.9 million. Pitts and Einstein would develop a relationship over the years that went far beyond that of horse and trainer.
Pitts has never had a horse anywhere near as good as Einstein or Curlin, and in fact has not had a black-type stakes winner since Einstein in 2009. In 2008, she married Churchill Downs outrider Greg Blasi, whose brother Scott helped guide the career of Curlin, staying with him throughout his two-race campaign in Dubai.
Jorgensen and Jenner, who had married in 2005, eventually moved to Jorgensen’s hometown of Rotnes, Norway, where they had a son, who will attend his first day of school next Monday. Both are, for the most part, out of horse racing and have “real jobs,” as Jenner put it.
Jess Jackson eventually bought out Bolton and Sanan’s interest in Curlin and was the colt’s sole owner throughout his 4-year-old campaign. He died of cancer in April, 2011 after racing the sensational filly Rachel Alexandra. The Stonestreet operation has actually expanded and flourished since under the supervision of Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke.
Kenny McPeek returned to training full-time and has built up his stable once again into one of the top operations in the country. George Bolton continues to own top-class horses, by himself and in partnership with Stonestreet Stables. Shirley Cunningham and Bill Gallion are currently serving long prison terms for bilking their clients in the infamous fen-phen drug scandal, in which the two lawyers pocketed more than $94 million of a $200 million settlement.
There were so many pieces to the Curlin story, which spanned both the East and West coasts of the United States and halfway around the world, complete with an eclectic cast of characters from all walks of life.
But the two who should not be forgotten are Helen Pitts and Hanne Jorgensen, who nurtured a young colt with early physical problems and saw him grow into a magnificent racing machine, only to have to bid him farewell just as he approached the threshold of greatness. The what ifs and the pain are long gone, and when Barbara Banke accepted the Hall of Fame plaque for Curlin last week, one could only hope that Pitts and Jorgensen were smiling.