World would have watched Curlin vs. Big Brown

Oct 14, 2008 4:59 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Ed Golden column regarding the anticipated Big Brown-Curlin matchup was written prior to Monday’s announcement that Big Brown would be retired. Here’s what might have been:

The wardrobe area was replete with garb that was all the rage in the 1930s. Suits and hats for men, dowager dresses for women, all sprawled over an expanse of the grandstand at Santa Anita, where an extensive segment of the hit film "Seabiscuit" was being filmed six years ago.

The stands were filled when Seabiscuit raced at Santa Anita nearly 70 years ago, and again at Pimlico when the fabled horse met and defeated Triple Crown champion War Admiral in their memorable match race on Nov. 1, 1938.

To replicate the post-Depression atmosphere at Santa Anita, scores of extras helped fill the seats in background shots, but the remainder were filled by inflatable plastic dummies that looked authentic hundreds of feet from the camera lens.

More than 40,000 jammed Pimlico when Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral by four lengths in the mile and three-sixteenths race, and more than 40 million listened on radio, at a time when the population of the United States was half of what it is today. Times were different then. It was a walk up start, triggered by a bell. Seabiscuit led much of the way, although they were head and head into the stretch until Seabiscuit, on the rail, drew off to win by four lengths.

If Curlin met Big Brown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 25 – and that was a big if all along – the crowd at Santa Anita could have rivaled 40,000. Unlike the match race, thanks to technology, seven decades later, interest will be global.

If Curlin faced Big Brown, the world would have been watching.

Newspapers and radio were the lone sources of information 70 years ago. Today, even a terrorist hell-bent on destroying America, hiding in a remote cave 10,000 miles away from his sworn enemy, has instant data at his skulduggerous fingertips thanks to the latest electronic gimmickry. When Seabiscuit conquered War Admiral, it was less than a dozen years after Lindbergh had flown solo over the Atlantic.

"In the old days, there were great races and great race horses, but most of the public didn’t know much about them," said trainer Barry Abrams, who was born in Russia but considers himself a history buff on racing. "Yes, there were live radio broadcasts of some races, but unless you knew it was on, you didn’t know what time it was or where to listen. The majority of the population didn’t know what was going on with the great horses. That’s what made the match between Seabiscuit and War Admiral so special. It captured the fancy of a nation.

"Now, when there’s a great race or a great horse coming up, it’s on every news station, on television, in every newspaper and on every computer; the whole world knows about it, not just one state or one city. That makes for great racing.

"If Curlin and Big Brown had run in the Breeders’ Cup, it would probably have been the most-watched horse race in the history of television. The whole world, from one end to the other, would want to listen to or see this race by some means."

From Barry’s mouth to God’s ears, is what the Oak Tree Racing Association was hoping, since they host the Breeders’ Cup this year for the fourth time. As to which horse, if either, would have won, speculation would have run rampant.

"They’re both great horses," Abrams said. "Curlin’s done more than Big Brown. Big Brown’s a 3-year-old, but if you throw out his Belmont fiasco, he’s a great horse, and if it hadn’t been for the Belmont, he’d be a Triple Crown winner. But something was amiss there, and if you throw that race out, he’s undefeated coming into the Classic.

"Curlin had one defeat on the turf (Man o’ War) this year, but his people were sportsmen and tried something else to see if he had another dimension, in case they wanted to run in the Arc (de Triomphe in Paris), or the Japan Cup later on. He’s a good horse on turf and a great horse on dirt. If he would have run in the Classic, we would see how he would do on a synthetic track."

The Classic did not figure to be a match race anyway, since a full field is expected. Abrams liked Curlin to win the race with Big Brown second.

We can only speculate now.

The homestretch

Vineyard Haven, smashing winner of the Champagne Stakes by nearly six lengths, is not eligible for the Breeders’ Cup and will pass the Juvenile. Trainer Bobby Frankel, who, according to my source, owns 80 percent of the son of Lido Palace, says the colt won’t race again this year. Dodgers manager Joe Torre owns a piece of the remaining 20 percent of Vineyard Haven.

• As forecast in my column of Sept. 23, Garrett Gomez will ride Go Between and not Colonel John in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Edgar Prado rides Colonel John.

• Scott Blasi, assistant to Steve Asmussen, on whether Curlin has a nickname at the barn: "We’re not really into that. He’s got an easy name to say, so we stick with that."

• Keep an eye on a 2-year-old named Sam Martino, a half-brother to the stakes-winning sprinter Bordonaro. "He’s about eight weeks away, but he’s been working really well," said trainer Bill Spawr, who hopes to have Bordonaro back around Jan. 1.