For racing fans, the stars aligned for Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year, to return and race at age 4. Now, for just the sixth time since the Eclipse Awards were first handed out in 1971, a runner has repeated as Horse of the Year.
Had Curlin, a son of Smart Strike, been raced by nearly any other owner, he probably would have been retired following his 3-year-old campaign and whisked off to stud. But stallion farms were reluctant to make a deal to stand Curlin because of legal questions regarding the minority interest owned by jailed attorneys William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr. Luckily, the horse’s majority owner was Jess Jackson, a man whose finances are such that a decision to return a valuable horse to training is made much easier.
The owner of Kendall-Jackson wineries, Jackson, who will turn 79 in a few weeks, is a billionaire ranked on the Forbes list of The “World’s Richest People.”
Next month, Curlin begins a life of covering mares at Will Farish’s Lane’s End Farm as a horse that won four group/grade I races at 4 and left the racetrack as the all-time leading North American-based runner by earnings. He shipped to Dubai and won the world’s richest race, that country’s World Cup (UAE-I), returned to win his first start back, the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), and also scored in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) and, for the second straight year, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).
Yes, some money was left on the table by not retiring Curlin following his 3-year-old season, when he won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), was beaten a nose in the Belmont (gr. I), and finished his campaign with wins in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Had Curlin stood last year, his stud fee certainly would have been more than the $75,000 he will command in 2009 in a down economy. The fees for foals that would have been born this year would have generated more than the $5,399,000 he earned on the racetrack last year.
When he picked up his first Horse of the Year title, Curlin became the 12th 3-year-old to be awarded racing’s top prize. When his name was called as Horse of the Year Jan. 26 at the Eclipse Awards ceremony, he became only the second to repeat as a 4-year-old, the other being Affirmed.
Six of the horses named Horse of the Year at age 3 did not race at 4, four of them because of injuries:
• 1982 Horse of the Year Conquistador Cielo was retired following a third-place finish in the Travers Stakes (gr. I). Trainer Woody Stephens said X-rays taken prior to the race showed “fuzz around the sesamoids” in his left fore. The horse had been syndicated for a then-record $910,000 a share.
• 1985 Horse of the Year Spend a Buck was retired in September of his 3-year-old campaign after an injury to his right ankle during a workout in preparation for the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II). He had won the Monmouth Handicap (gr. I) in mid-August in what would be his final start.
• 1999 Horse of the Year Charismatic suffered a career-ending injury in the Belmont, in which he was trying to complete the Triple Crown. He finished third and was then pulled up by jockey Chris Antley, having fractured a cannon bone.
• 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given was retired in late August of his 3-year-old year because of a strain to a tendon in his left foreleg. The injury was noticed as he returned to the track a few days after winning the Travers.
The two retired following their 3-year-old seasons were Secretariat, the only horse to be Horse of the Year at 2 and 3, and A.P. Indy, whose last start was a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Those who were Horse of the Year at 3 and raced at 4 but did not repeat were Seattle Slew, Tiznow, Holy Bull, and Sunday Silence.
Affirmed and Curlin pulled it off. Curlin is in good company. So, too, is Affirmed.