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BILL DWYRE

There's Curlin, and 11 spoilers

October 25, 2008|BILL DWYRE

There is little left to say about Curlin and today's Breeders' Cup Classic.

He is the rock star and this is his stage. Attendance at Santa Anita's picturesque race track could reach as high as 45,000, and lots of those will be Curlin groupies.

They stretched this year's Breeders' Cup to two days, 14 races and $25.5 million in purses.

But all of that will take a back seat to the grand finale. At about 3:45 p.m. at Santa Anita's picturesque race track, they will load Curlin and 11 more of the world's best horses into a gate at the west end of the main straightaway.

In the world of horse racing, all will stop. Some of the sports world in general will too.

Curlin won this $5-million Classic race last year, in the muck and mud at Monmouth Park. This is not New Jersey. There won't be any of that at Santa Anita.

But there will be plenty of competition, and the self-labeled savvy betters will be shrugging off the Curlin hype and looking elsewhere, assuming that nothing can be as good as Curlin sounds.

Still, hard to ignore is Curlin's $10,246,800 in winnings, most ever in North America, plus designation as horse of the year last year and credentials to be that again this year.

Even his majority owner, 78-year-old Jess Jackson, Kendall-Jackson Winery founder, who has excelled as a lawyer and businessman to the point of now being one of the richest men in the world, is awe-struck.

"Curlin is my hero," Jackson says.

Maybe even a bit of a groupie himself, if events of Oct. 13 are any indication.

Curlin was scheduled to work on Santa Anita's new synthetic surface that day, between the fourth and fifth races of a Columbus Day card. Trainer Steve Asmussen, currently the leading trainer in the country, was uneasy with the surface and had put Curlin on a plane and shipped him to California within hours of his second straight victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Sept. 27.

Now, this was to be the final test, a gallop with stablemate Hawaii Cells.

Jackson trusts Asmussen completely, but he said he just had to be there, to see for himself. So he got on his plane in Santa Rosa and headed for Ontario Airport. Asmussen, knowing he had a small window of time between races to do this, paced in the barns, knowing his owner was running late.

"We left Ontario at 1:50 and made it here just after 2:15," Jackson told the press. "We passed a few black-and-whites going about 85, but our driver was a former policeman, so we were OK."

The other members of his party weren't. They were still shaking.

The next day, groupie Jackson and trainer Asmussen announced Curlin would race, and now, their horse stands as the 7-5 morning-line favorite.

Curlin's challengers, in order of morning-line odds:

Raven's Pass, 6-1. Owned by a Jordanian princess and trained by John Gosden, Raven's Pass has won just shy of $1 million with five victories in 11 starts, all in Europe. Gosden said he and the other European horses are here because the synthetic track surface is similar to their grass. "If this was at Churchill Downs, on dirt, we wouldn't be here," Gosden said. "But to not take up this challenge would be wimpish."

Go Between, 8-1. The son of dual 2001 Triple Crown race-winner Point Given, he is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, trainer of the legendary Cigar, and ridden by one of the hottest riders of the last several years, Garrett Gomez. Go Between has six starts on synthetics and has been first or second in all of them.

Casino Drive, 10-1. This is the Japanese-owned horse who will be making only his fourth start, including an easy winning allowance-race jaunt Oct. 12 at Santa Anita. Casino Drive was the talk of the Belmont before this year's Triple Crown try by Big Brown. Then Casino Drive scratched out with an injury and remains somewhat of a mystery. His sister, Rags To Riches, beat Curlin in the classic 2007 Belmont stretch duel. "Now, Curlin has to beat her brother," said Victor Espinoza, Casino Drive's jockey.

Fairbanks, 10-1. Prepared by the fifth-ranked Breeders' Cup winning trainer Todd Pletcher, Fairbanks has finished first or second in four of his last five races. Pletcher, like Asmussen, is not a booster of synthetic tracks. "Horses seem to train well on it," he said, "but they don't always run well over it."

Duke Of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator, 10-1. The two European horses, while not coupled for betting, are owned at least in part by John Magnier and trained by Aidan O'Brien. Duke Of Marmalade seems to be the better of the two. "The Duke has danced every dance we've asked him to," O'Brien said.

Tiago, 15-1. The half-brother to 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, John Shirreffs' Tiago won the 2007 Santa Anita Derby but finished fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. Tiago has the same team of Shirreffs, jockey Mike Smith and owners Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Moss that won the big race Friday with Zenyatta.

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