All eyes in the world of thoroughbred horse racing will be firmly fixed on defending 2007 Horse of the Year winner Curlin as he goes for history this Saturday in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. If he can pull out another victory, the talented son of Smart Strike will pass the legendary Cigar on the all-time earnings list for North American thoroughbreds, and pass the $10,000,000 threshold.
As many of you know who read this blog frequently, I consider myself one of (if not THE) biggest Curlin fan in the world. From the moment I first saw him I knew he’d be the type of horse to make history, and if all goes to plan this Saturday he will add to his growing legacy. The elephant in the room will continue to be the possible showdown with Big Brown (and perhaps Zenyatta? more on that later) in the Breeder’s Cup Classic next month at Santa Anita. For now though, much like a top ranked collegiate football team progressing through it’s schedule of games (no offense to USC fans), I’d prefer to take it one race at a time. Let’s get the Gold Cup victory and then we’ll start thinking about next steps.
Curlin exits a surprisingly competitive rendition of the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes on August 30 at Saratoga, which depending on how you look at it either should help him get into top form or offers a hint that perhaps it’s possible to defeat him – even on dirt. No doubt the other 8 horses competing against him in the Gold Cup will hope it’s the latter. Me, I’ll be banking on the former. No surprise there, huh?
The field for the Jockey Club Gold Cup:
- Ravel – Todd Pletcher (Rafael Bejarano) 30/1
- Merchant Marine – Allen Jerkens (Cornelio Velasquez) 12/1
- Timber Reserve – John Kimmel (Kent Desormeaux) 12/1
- Wanderin Boy – Nick Zito (Alan Garcia) 10/1
- Curlin – Steve Asmussen (Robby Albarado) 3/5*
- Angliana – Gary Contessa (Richard Maragh) 10/1
- A.P. Arrow – Todd Pletcher (Ramon Dominguez) 20/1
- Stones River – Larry Jones (Gabriel Saez) 20/1
- Mambo in Seattle – Neil Howard (Edgar Prado) 7/2
Conventional wisdom says that the most likely challenger to Curlin will be Mambo in Seattle – who we last saw getting nosed out by Colonel John in the Travers at Saratoga on 8/23. I think it goes without saying that Colonel John and Pyro (the other in-the-money finishers from the Travers) are not quite of Curlin’s caliber. Still, Mambo in Seattle has improved nicely in each of the last three races. He’s going to need to move forward once again if he’s to threaten an upset over the defending 2007 Horse of the Year.
Mambo in Seattle loses a heart breaker to Colonel John in the 2008 Travers Stakes at Saratoga
Looking at the pace setup of this race, I think we’ve got two horses who could battle it out for the early the lead. Both Wanderin Boy and Merchant Marine have shown desires to go for the front early on, and I’ve got to think that in their trainer’s minds the vision of Curlin having to go all out in the Man O’ War and the Woodward chasing fast early splits has them thinking they’ll gun it and hope for the best. Take a look at the splits in the Woodward compared to the splits in Curlin’s victory in the Stephen Foster. In the Woodward, Past the Point and Wanderin Boy helped propel early splits of :46.2 and 1:09.6. In the Stephen Foster, Curlin only had to chase spits of :49.2 and 1:13.4. That’s a significant difference, and I’d expect things to be as hot up front as they can be depending on track conditions.
Ironically, this should still play into Curlin’s hands. I don’t think Robby Albarado is going to let them get too far away, and will send Curlin from as many as 5 furlongs out in an all-out drive if he has to. It could be wet out there, and I don’t think I need to remind anyone of what we saw from Curlin the last time things got sloppy. All he did was leave one of the most competitive Breeder’s Cup Classic fields ever assembled in his wake as he thundered home to claim Horse of the Year honors. Also note that he did that off of a 2007 Jockey Club Gold Cup performance that looks somewhat similar on paper to his effort in the 2008 Woodward. Might Curlin be sitting on a huge one? I think so.
Curlin powers through the slop at Monmouth to win the 2007 Breeder’s Cup Classic en route to winning Horse of the Year honors
So how to play the trifecta then? Well, when tracks get sloppy I tend to prefer runners up front that won’t be covered in filth or have mud being kicked into their face all the way around the track. This doesn’t apply to Curlin, since we’ve seen his mud-covered self winning in brilliant fashion before, but it does make me back off some of the bigger named runners in here including A.P. Arrow. I really like the looks of the Jerkins runner, Merchant Marine, being a surprise on the tote board at 12/1. I’ll likely include Wanderin Boy in that mix as well at 10/1. Obviously if these two duel it out, my ticket will likely implode. What I’ll be banking on is that one of these two gets a half length lead or more, and that the other sits down in second just off of him. I’ll use the up-and-coming Mambo in Seattle underneath for show to round out the ticket. I may wind up using A.P. Arrow if he makes a favorable impression in the post parade, but for now I’ll call it:
Get ‘em, Curlin! It’s time to take your rightful place among the pantheon of all-time greats. Once more, back again – into the the breech. Will you yield, and this avoid? Or guilty in greatness be thus preserved? Yes, once again you’ve managed to bring out the Shakespeare in me. “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” And so has it always been with you. Not just any horse, but King Curlin.
Stay tuned for my post on the rest of the undercard, as we’ve got an unprecedented 5 Grade 1 races at Belmont on Saturday – and then an equally impressive card at Oak Tree starting later in the afternoon. This is a big, big, day for racing – and only helps make the point for the “Take Back Saturday” initiative we pitched to the NTRA out in Vegas.