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Curlin cut off at the 'Pass

October 26, 2008|BILL DWYRE

Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic ended with Bo Derek watching at the finish line and Curlin showing that he is no longer a perfect 10 either.

In a horse race as anticipated as any in years, Curlin did not win the $5-million Classic, did not live up to the superlatives. In a two-year, 15-race career that had made him one of the most famous and beloved thoroughbreds ever and brought more than $10 million in winnings, Curlin had never finished out of the money.

But shortly before 4 p.m., on a sweltering afternoon at a Santa Anita Park dressed for a party and throwing a great one, Curlin was eased across the finish line by jockey Robby Albarado in fourth place. Raven's Pass won the race, followed by Henrythenavigator and Tiago.

It appeared as if Albarado could have coaxed and whipped a third-place spot out of Curlin. But common sense probably dictated that anything less than the history-making top rung wasn't worth the effort.

At stake was a second straight victory in the Classic, another $3 million in the bank, and, most likely, a slam-dunk election as the repeat horse of the year. Now, electors will have to weigh Curlin against unbeaten filly Zenyatta.

Even more at stake was history, the legacy of a Hershey-bar-colored horse who stayed around long enough for the public to get to know him and love him.

On television, the network guys speculated that a victory here would make Curlin the best horse in the last two decades. That covers a lot of time and may be a lot of horse manure. But it was the kind of non-provable hyperbole that can feed a very hungry industry, and there's no real harm there.

The day belonged to the European horses, one of which was Raven's Pass. When five of the nine Breeders' Cup titles contested Saturday went to horses who had to fly over a very large ocean with a very large continent just to get here, there was a sense that racing may have a little Ryder Cup-like rivalry beginning.

"The gauntlet may have been thrown down for U.S. breeders," said Greg Avioli, chief executive of the sanctioning Breeders' Cup organization.

The Ryder Cup of horse racing will have to wait until next year. This year, it was all about Curlin, and fans showing the love.

With mane nicely braided, Curlin made the walk from barn to paddock like royalty. Fans stood three and four deep along the way. Cameras clicked and hands clapped. Every step he took turned heads. Parents whispered to children that they should pay attention, that this was special.

There were 11 other horses in the race, most of them among the elite in the sport, and Curlin was the buzz.

"As we came from the receiving barn, with Curlin walking behind us," said John Gosden, trainer of Raven's Pass, "people were clapping, shouting, screaming. . . . People right there on top of the horses, it's amazing nobody gets kicked."

It even continued after Curlin had crossed the finish line, a disappointing fourth. After galloping out, Albarado brought him back last to the finish-line area, and fans in the packed grandstand stood and applauded his every step.

If this was, indeed, Curlin's last hurrah, Southern California fans made it a memorable one.

And chances are, this was it for a horse finishing his 4-year-old season and clearly ready to attract huge breeding fees. But the wild card in all this, a wealthy maverick named Jess Jackson, the majority owner, didn't sound quite like a man who was content to have seen the last race from this horse.

"He is a great competitor, and we are competitors," Jackson said as he left the track.

He made no announcements, nor determinations for the future. He did indicate that Curlin had performed well in a situation where he was beaten by horses more familiar with the surface this race was won on -- all but one of Curlin's previous races had been on dirt. He said that Curlin's failure to continue to accelerate once he edged into the lead on the homestretch spoke to the team's ongoing concern about running on synthetics.

There has been discussion in racing circles about the prospect of Curlin running once more this year, in the Thanksgiving weekend Grade II Clarke at Churchill Downs. That remains a long shot, but it would speak to Jackson's desire to expose Curlin to as many racing fans as possible before he is retired.

Raven's Pass went off as the fifth choice, at 13-1, after starting the day as the 8-1 second choice on the morning line. Curlin was bet down to 90 cents on the dollar, and was still being saddled in the paddock when the amount of money bet on him at Santa Anita went past $1 million.

That was the first time in memory that had happened here, and it meant that the public address announcer had to explain to the crowd of 51,331 that the tote board didn't have room for that many numbers next to Curlin.

As Jackson and the Curlin connections departed, the spotlight correctly shifted to Raven's Pass. It was somehow fitting that a star such as Curlin was unseated by a jockey who is also a star.

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