YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Speculation on Curlin is at full gallop

October 07, 2008|Bill Dwyre

Santa Anita gave Curlin its best shot Monday morning.

The skies turned bright blue, the temperature was comfortably cool and the mountains framing the famous racetrack looked more watercolor painting than real.

But the news was that there was no news.

Curlin might run against Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown in the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Classic here, a race that has become one of the more anticipated in years. Or he might not.

When Curlin glided down the main straightaway at 6:44 a.m., just shortly after sunup, galloping a half-mile in 52.4 seconds, the Great Race Place was abuzz. Clockers Corner well exceeded the usual clientele of jockeys, agents and trainers. There were cameras and stopwatches and binoculars everywhere, as well as a group of reporters, trailing along behind the man of the hour, trainer Steve Asmussen.

At this time of the morning, Santa Anita is usually like the 405 Freeway. Horses here, horses there, horses running and jogging and walking everywhere. But all seemed aware of Curlin's presence, and when he took off on his half-mile run, there was plenty of room along the rail and all eyes on the coffee-with-cream-colored horse.

This was Curlin's coming-out party at Santa Anita, and the racing rock star looked every bit ready for his close-up. Around the barns, cameras clicked and Curlin paused to pose.

Maybe he knows. Nobody else seems to.

Asmussen, who trains mostly in the East, was here to get his first look at Curlin on Santa Anita's synthetic surface. He said he would stay over Monday night to see how Curlin comes out of his half-mile gallop and then head back home to Arlington, Texas. Asmussen said he will return for another trial run for Curlin next Monday morning, and then, he said, a decision about the Breeders' Cup will be closer.

"We need to give Curlin the patience he deserves," Asmussen said.

And so, while all of racing twists in its saddle, Asmussen will go slowly on this one, watching his horse, talking to his assistant trainer on-site at Santa Anita, Scott Blasi, and doing the same with Curlin's majority owner, Jess Jackson.

Among those out bright and early for the Curlin show were Santa Anita Chief Executive Ron Charles and Oak Tree's director and executive vice president, Sherwood Chillingworth. The term "champing at the bit," normally reserved for horses, fit them better Monday morning.

Both know that a Curlin-Big Brown matchup represents one of those rare racing moments that goes beyond the race fan to the attention of a public that normally stops caring after it has its Lakers tickets and Dodgers caps.

Curlin is a 4-year-old, still in racing prime after finishing in the money in all three Triple Crown races last year, including winning the Preakness, and winning last year's $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic. With his recent victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in New York, Curlin passed Cigar as the all-time leading money winner in North America, the Gold Cup purse pushing him past $10 million.

Big Brown is this year's 3-year-old star, crushing the field in the first two legs of the Triple Crown and then, inexplicably, turning in a clinker in the Belmont and being pulled up on the last turn. Since then, Big Brown has run well, won everything he has entered and committed to the Classic.

In fact, it has almost been a matter of Big Brown's connections calling out Curlin.

But Asmussen isn't playing. His negative feelings for synthetic surfaces are well known, and attempts to get him to say something nice about Santa Anita's racetrack Monday morning were unsuccessful.

"Synthetics are different in the morning than in the afternoon," he said. "And they are different from track to track."

Asmussen said he probably would school Curlin in Santa Anita's paddock, but cautioned, again, that that should not be interpreted one way or another.

"We are here to put his mind at ease, to get him acclimated," Asmussen said.

Later, he added, "We are doing this [going slowly on the decision to race or not] because we accept our responsibility as Curlin's caretaker."

When the question of Curlin's racing was posed directly to various members of Curlin's camp, the answer seemed to boil down to the same words: "It's all up to the big guy."

It was never clear, however, whether that meant Curlin or owner Jackson, the billionaire founder of the Kendall-Jackson winery.

Neither was available for comment.


Bill Dwyre can be reached at To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to

Los Angeles Times Articles