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Script needs a big finish

October 01, 2008|Bill Dwyre

We have another rock star in the city of bright lights. Welcome to Hollywood, Curlin.

Given a little more time here, and maybe a sentence or two, this magnificent racehorse might become as big as Mr. Ed.

Right now, Barn 27 at Santa Anita is the hot spot of the racing world. There's even extra security.

"They have theirs," says Ron Charles, Santa Anita president and chief executive. "And we added some of ours."

These are interesting days at the Arcadia race track.

The annual Oak Tree meeting, usually taking place in relative serenity, has become the flash point for the sport on several levels. This year's meeting will lead to a grand finale called the Breeders' Cup, where almost every race for two days is worth at least $1 million and the big one is worth $5 million. And that Big One is becoming bigger every day, even while it is still not certain it will happen.

That ideal matchup would put Big Brown and Curlin on the same track in the same race for the $5-million purse, and the likely honor of Horse of the Year. On Saturday at Belmont Park in New York, Curlin won the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

That was expected. What wasn't expected was that this 4-year-old treasure would be put in a van at 5 a.m. the next day and flown immediately to California.

Roughly 24 hours after Curlin had passed the $10-million mark in earnings, best ever in North America, he was unloaded from a van and walked into Barn 27, surrounded by open notebooks and clicking cameras.

Now, Curlin is being walked for a few days, then galloped, maybe by the end of the week. And soon, his connections will make the decision. Is Santa Anita's new version of a synthetic track safe enough for this multimillion dollars worth of horse to run on? Is it to his liking? Is the risk worth the potential reward, especially for a horse that has already won the Breeders' Cup Classic last year and already won the Horse of the Year honors last year.

Interwoven in this drama is a cast of characters that would make a boxing promoter drool.

"We'll be putting a tale of the tape out there before this one," Charles says.

In one corner, quick with lip, is Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow Jr. His horse won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and several impressive starts this fall. Dutrow's usual reaction to other horses about to race his is a sniff or a dismissive phrase. His ownership goes right with him, and the entire camp has pushed for the matchup with Curlin like a guy on a bar stool.

"Let settle this outside. Bring it on."

In the other corner, Team Curlin, a bit smoother around the edges but no less willing to roll up sleeves and wade in, is trainer Steve Asmussen and majority owner Jess Jackson. Asmussen doesn't like synthetic surfaces. Jackson, founder of Kendall-Jackson Winery, doesn't like anybody to think another horse is better than his.

If this comes off, look for it to go the full 12 rounds . . . er, down to the last furlong.

"Mr. Jackson visited us recently," Charles says, "and when we got to talking about the big matchup, he said, 'They're [Big Brown's people] not going to come here to race us.' I told him that, the only thing certain about this was that they'd be here. He could count on it."

Big Brown is expected to ship to Santa Anita the week of the Breeders' Cup.

Asmussen has sent his main assistant, Scott Blasi, to oversee Curlin's introduction to Santa Anita's synthetics. Hall of Fame Trainer Richard Mandella, who works for Jackson here, is expected to have a hand in the decision too.

Much can happen in the 25 days before race time.

There has been one breakdown during races so far at Oak Tree, which began last Wednesday, and three more during training.

The Curlin team will certainly take note of four horses being put down, but they also know that that, sadly, is close to the norm. Also, according to Charles, trainer Mike Mitchell, whose horse, Jump Through, broke down during racing, did not blame the track.

The usual lazy, hazy days of Oak Tree are anything but.

The champ is in the house, seeing if the ring is bouncy and the ropes are good. The challenger is back East, working out on the heavy bag.

Nothing is set, but when you see an announcement that Santa Anita has hired Bob Arum and Don King as consultants, figure the deal is done.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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