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HORSE RACING

One look at Curlin was all it took

October 23, 2008|BILL DWYRE

Curlin's arrivals at the wire, almost always in front of a pack of other well-bred, expensive thoroughbreds, have been well documented. His arrival to the ownership of Jess Jackson, and to the stable of Steve Asmussen, less so.

The story began the day before the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami, the one where Peyton Manning beat the Bears and finally won the big one.

One of the early races at nearby Gulfstream Park was a race with a $38,000 purse and a field of non-winning 3-year-olds, each of whom had trained well, had cost a lot and were about to show the value of their investment.

A good five-hour drive away in Ocala, Fla., a bloodstock agent named John Moynihan, then 42, was at a horse sale, hanging around and watching races from around the country on TV monitors.

What he saw that day from Gulfstream left him wide-eyed in disbelief.

"I saw this horse start to draw away going into the turn," he said. "That almost never happens. Then, when he turned for home, he kind of drifted out and was gawking around and he was still drawing away from the field."

Curlin broke his maiden by 12 3/4 lengths that day, and Moynihan had fallen in love.

Moynihan was no newcomer to the business, but he may be the most fortunate bloodstock agent in the last two decades. He started with Bob Lewis as his main client and helped Lewis and his wife, Beverly, find numerous stakes winners and Triple Crown race-winners in the late 1990s.

Then, a year or so before Lewis died in 2006, he alerted Moynihan that a man named Jess Jackson might be getting into racing in a big way and might be calling him. Jackson, the billionaire founder of Kendall-Jackson Winery in Santa Rosa, eventually did just that.

And so, that day in Ocala, Moynihan was looking for horses for Jackson's Stonestreet Stables and for his main trainer, Asmussen.

"Steve was at Gulfstream and I called him right away," Moynihan said. "I asked him if he had seen the horse, and he said he had, and had also seen him cool down and look as if he had hardly even run. I told him, we got to buy him. He agreed."

Moynihan's next call was to Jackson, in California. He was on board too.

Then the fun began.

"It wasn't luck that we found the horse," Moynihan said. "Even a novice who saw that race knew there was something special there. Our luck was that we were able to buy him."

There were several things working in favor of the Moynihan/Jackson/Asmussen team.

One, it was Super Bowl weekend so it was hard for anybody, including race people, to pay attention to much else. Another was that Curlin's ownership team, headed by Bill Gallion -- which had paid $57,000 for Curlin at the '05 Keeneland sale in September and then not raced him as a 2-year-old because of a minor ankle problem -- was open to selling.

The third element was truly cosmic.

"Helen Pitts was Curlin's trainer," Moynihan said. "Normally, in this situation, the trainer doesn't want to lose the horse and won't be helpful in any regard about a sale."

But Pitts was dating Greg Blasi, the brother of Asmussen's main assistant, Scott Blasi, and so Pitts was more inclined to be helpful to the Asmussen team. Pitts and Greg Blasi were married last month.

"Helen gave me Bill Gallion's phone number, and I started calling," Moynihan said.

The phone dealings went on through the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday and into the wee hours.

At about 2 a.m. Monday, Moynihan and Gallion struck a deal over the phone, contingent on Moynihan's checking out Curlin in person the next day. The offer, and eventual sale amount, has been reported to be around $3 million. A key element was that Gallion and his partner, Shirley Cunningham, got to keep a piece of the horse.

"I got there, went to Helen's barn, and the horse looked beautiful," Moynihan said. "It was like he had never even raced before.

"Then I saw Bill Gallion and he had this vague sort of look on his face. He said he had been offered around $2 million more than we had, and my heart sank. Then he said, 'I told you we had a deal, and we do.'

"I'll never forget that."

Gallion stayed true to his handshake, and soon, Asmussen and Blasi were plotting the direction of their new potential superstar.

By April, Curlin had won the Grade III Rebel and the Grade II Arkansas Derby and was among the favorites to win the Kentucky Derby.

"I was never more sure that a horse would win the Derby," Moynihan said, adding that, when he drew the No. 2 post, he knew Curlin would have a tough trip. That's exactly what happened, and though he was blocked much of the time, he was the only horse coming hard at winner Street Sense at the end.

That, of course, was an omen for Curlin's Preakness victory in 2007 and onward, to a two-year racing career that has generated more than $10 million in winnings.

That, of course, is expected to increase Saturday when the horse that caught Moynihan's eye 20 months ago, goes off as the favorite in Saturday's $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. He won the same race last year and was also named horse of the year.

Curlin was an incredible find. Turns out, they need not have looked so far and wide.

To the amazement of his new owners, they discovered Curlin had been born, raised and run the fields as a baby at Fares Farms near Lexington. Fares Farms borders Stonestreet Stables, Jackson's farm.

All they had to do was walk next door.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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