On a perfect day, Curlin is no synthetic champion

Oct 28, 2008 4:08 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

It was billed as Curlin Against the World, and the World won.

The World in this case was Raven’s Pass, an English invader making his first start in the United States and running beyond one mile for the first time. He won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by nearly two lengths over yet another English invader, Henrythenavigator.

Tiago was third, outfinishing the heralded Curlin, who for the first time in his career surrendered the lead in the stretch and finished fourth as the 9-10 favorite.

Except for Curlin’s people and backers, Breeders’ Cup 25 at Santa Anita last Friday and Saturday was a smashing success. More than 80,000 fans attended the two-day extravaganza, 51,331 on Saturday. The racing gentry displayed its most appealing apparel.

The weather, warm under the Southern California sun, produced clear and fast conditions and, to the disenchantment of PETA, no horse suffered a fatality or even an injury during the running of 21 races in a span of 48 hours.

Curlin’s defeat marked the first time the 4-year-old son of Smart Strike finished worse than third in 16 career starts. Worse yet, the reigning Horse of the Year blew any chance he had to repeat.

While a case could be made for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, who missed the Classic due to a foot injury that forced his retirement, honors now will go to the undefeated filly, Zenyatta, who captured the Ladies’ Classic in typical breathtaking fashion on Friday for her ninth straight victory.

A scenario projected in last week’s column, whereby Curlin lost without apparent excuse and Zenyatta won impressively, squarely thrusts the daughter of Street Cry into the lead for Horse of the Year honors. How can you argue against perfection?

Steve Asmussen might. The trainer of Curlin, never a champion of synthetic surfaces, over which this year’s Breeders’ Cup was run for the first time, in this instance Pro-Ride, blamed his colt’s loss on the surface. "It was a turf race," he said. "It was absolutely the Pro-Ride surface (that beat him). He ran his heart out and gave it all he had. He’s a great horse. He’s made over $10 million."

That’s old news. What’s new is that aside from Jess Jackson, Curlin’s majority owner, the rest of the colt’s entourage were not enamored running in the Classic, a race he won last year in the slop at Monmouth Park. But Jackson, in a genuine sporting gesture, ruled the day. And what a day – in this case, two days – it was.

"It was absolutely perfect," said Oak Tree track announcer Trevor Denman, a verbal Picasso as he described each Breeders’ Cup race to the live throng and to the television masses watching on ABC and ESPN. "Except for Curlin, all the stars came through. No horse blinked out there. Each came back perfect and if it wasn’t a superstar winning, it was a thrilling finish. There were star-packed fields, although you’re never going to have a Utopia."

Denman was never better behind the mike. Accused by detractors of occasionally "mailing it in" in latter years, the South Africa native was primed and perfect in Breeders’ Cup 25.

"It’s totally different calling races like this," he said. "This is the World Series, the heavyweight championship. It’s totally different and I’m glad it is, because if I wasn’t pumped up and the adrenalin wasn’t flowing, I’d be soured off the game. If you’re not excited, then you shouldn’t be here."

Denman’s signature trait is soloing in on the winner of a race often more than a quarter-mile before the finish. An aspiring jockey in his native country before weight forced him to alter his vocation, Denman can discern a winning move and publicly declare it before anyone else senses it.

"Good horses go on with it, so it’s easier to detect," he said. "A cheap horse might back up, but not horses of this quality. I’ve watched horses for 54 years –or 51 – anyway–so hopefully, I know what I’m doing. That’s not a brag. If I don’t know what I’m doing after 51 years, I’m in trouble."

That he is not. Nor for two days of championship racing at Santa Anita was the maligned sport. Among those in attendance were California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Mayor of Los Angeles (Antonio Villaraigosa) and the Owner of Santa Anita (Frank Stronach).

Also on hand was Bo Derek of "10" fame. Fittingly, it was a perfect ending.

The homestretch

News You Can Bet On from last week’s column: "Two singles on Friday’s female (Breeders’ Cup) card: Zenyatta and Stardom Bound." Each won with jaw-dropping moves to clinch Eclipse Awards as champion older filly and 2-year-old filly.

• Bob Baffert calls Midnight Lute, the first repeat winner of the Sprint, "the best horse I ever trained."

• Garrett Gomez became the first rider in Breeders’ Cup history to win more than two races in one day when he won on Albertus Maximus (Dirt Mile), Midshipman (Juvenile) and Midnight Lute on Saturday. On Friday, Gomez won the Filly & Mare Sprint aboard Ventura. None of the horses was favored. Gomez won the Bill Shoemaker Award as the event’s outstanding jockey.

• The Phillies 5-4 win over Tampa Bay in game three of the World Series can best be described as ugly, with a capital UGH! The Phils deserved the victory, especially since first base umpire Tom Hallion blew an out call that led to two runs by the Rays.