Ruffian’s ‘Curse’ shows its
ugly head at Churchill Downs

Nov 7, 2006 5:38 AM

Thorougbred racing in America is both blessed and cursed, occasionally a little of both at the same time. The ill-fated Barbaro, of course, is the best example this year, but certainly not the only one.

Last spring, it appeared after the Kentucky Derby that the highly touted 3-year-old might be a super colt, the second coming of Secretariat.

Then, in the Preakness, the disaster of a shattered leg. A pure curse. I call it The Curse of Ruffian, the great filly who captured America’s imagination 31 years ago and then lost her hugely ballyhooed and highly anticipated match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure — and her life — breaking down on national television.

Barbaro this year was a reprise, except the horse survived, and the daily ministrations of Dr. Dean Richardson at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton center captured headlines in newspapers, television, and magazines worldwide.

As a runner, he would have competed, as is the thoroughbred style for its best horses, once a month, or once every two months. As a victim of a tragic breakdown, he was news daily for weeks and months, and even now is covered in occasional bulletins on his progress.

From the Preakness disaster, of course, came the winner, Bernardini, who quickly took Barbaro’s place as the next super horse, and maintained it with tremendously impressive performances. The happy ending was denied last Saturday when the older South American star Invasor outran him in deep stretch racing for the winner’s share of a $5 million Breeders’ Cup. While some of the glamour has worn off, Bernardini remains a major star.

The blessing and the curse continued in Saturday’s "world championships."

The all probing eyes of the TV cameras were there in force to record every second of every race, and when favored Pine Island went down and co-favorite Fleet Indian was pulled up with an injury that ends her racing career in the $2 million Distaff, tens of thousands saw stars once again in fatal distress. Like Ruffian and Go for Wand and the others who have died in the public eye on track in recent decades, the Curse was at work.

But once again the sport was blessed, at the very start of Saturday’s proceedings.

Even as the drumbeat slowed for Bernardini, it began a rapid roll for a young new hero: the 2-year-old Street Sense, who ran away from a field of his contemporaries by 10 lengths in the $2 million Juvenile. This set in motion the beginning of a new campaign, this one for an event still seven months down the road: the Kentucky Derby.

You will hear of Street Sense often from now until May. His trainer, the veteran Carl Nafzger, acknowledged what he knows from experience is to come: a constant barrage of publicity and escalating ballyhoo, and the unrelenting battle to keep his precocious colt sound.

There was another case of curse and blessing to Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup classics.

Although they lost their leader unexpectedly at an early age a few years ago, the sheiks of Dubai — the storied Muktoum clan — now dominate world thoroughbred racing. They do because they lavish their billions on buying the best, regardless of price, much of it in Lexington, Kentucky, where they spent more than $60 million for yearlings a few months ago.

They will never get that $60 million back from those colts and fillies, but when you finish one-two in a $5 million race, as the Maktoums did Saturday with Invasor and Bernardini, the price of yearlings is incidental.

Stature, at least in horse racing, can be bought, and the boys from Dubai buy it big, and in that sense are a blessing for the sport in America.