The 2008 quest for the ever-elusive Triple Crown is now over and it's back to the rest of the racing action. And, there's been plenty of it.
Reigning Horse of the Year CURLIN (Smart Strike) returned to action last Saturday in the $1 million Stephen Foster H. (G1) at Churchill Downs against nine overmatched rivals. Sent off as the 2-5 favorite, he tracked a very slow pace while stuck on the inside. Carrying 128 pounds and giving 10-to-15 pounds to the field, Curlin settled nicely for Robby Albarado going into the first turn.
Albarado had a ton of horse under him but had to bide his time as the slow pace -- :25.01 for the first quarter and :49.28 for the half -- enabled his rivals to box him in. As we saw in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) at the end of March, Curlin has the look of a horse that wants to explode, but for seven furlongs on Saturday, Albarado had to keep his powder dry.
As the field approached the top of the stretch, a hole opened up for Curlin, Albarado shook the reins and the Foster was over. Like a kid leaving school on the first day of summer vacation, Curlin was finally free and romped to a 4 1/4-length win over Einstein (Brz) (Spend a Buck), who nosed out pacesetter Barcola (Old Trieste) for the place. You are not supposed to win handicap races by wide margins, but there was no slowing down Curlin once he was in the clear.
It took Curlin 1:49.68 to cover the nine furlongs of the Foster and his modest BRIS Speed rating of 104 is more typical of a slow-paced race rather than any chinks in his armor. The innovative strategy of trainer Steve Asmussen and majority owner Jess Jackson to take him to Dubai early and get him acclimated has resulted in him not missing a beat since coming home.
Speaking of innovative strategies, Curlin's connections are now considering a run at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1) to cement his spot among racing's all-time greats. Too bad he didn't try it last year since this year's renewal at Longchamp looks to be one of the best ever.
Curlin will probably have one turf start in America before shipping to France early and have a prep before the Arc. The major Arc prep races are run three weeks before and they are at the Arc distance of 1 1/2 miles. The main difference is they usually attract small fields and are run at an amazingly slow (even by European standards) pace.
This year's Arc will be the richest horse race in the world now that it will be sponsored by the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club for the next five years. Depending on the currency exchange rate, the purse for this year's Arc should be around $6.2 million.
On the day before our Belmont S. (G1), SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (Galileo [Ire]) won the Coronation Cup (Eng-G1) at Epsom going 1 1/2 miles. Last year, he won the Irish Derby (Ire-G1) by nine and lost all chance at winning the Arc when stablemate DYLAN THOMAS (Ire) (Danehill) interfered with him in the stretch. He's back better than ever and has the Arc in his sights as his ultimate goal.
The next day at Epsom saw champion juvenile colt NEW APPROACH (Galileo [Ire]) redeem himself with a sensational win in the Epsom Derby (Eng-G1). Undefeated at two, he began his sophomore season in the English Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-G1) at Newmarket as the heavy favorite. In that mile event, he went to the front but was caught at the wire by HENRYTHENAVIGATOR (Kingmambo).
Next start, New Approach went to the Curragh for the Irish Two Thousand Guineas (Ire-G1) but was no match again for Henry on ground that was probably too firm for him. With his season rapidly going the wrong way, trainer Jim Bolger suddenly announced that he was going to run in the Derby despite having never won a race beyond seven furlongs.
This year's Derby was a group of late-developers and at least New Approach had a decided class edge. But, his front-running tactics that failed going a mile would certainly not work on the undulating Epsom course. Jockey Kevin Manning got him to relax early and he trailed most of the field for the first mile. As they descended around Tattenham Corner, Manning had no place to go but that didn't stop him.
Throwing caution to the wind and risking his own suspension, Manning bullied his way through the field in the stretch, severely impeding several rivals, to go on and win the Derby at generous 9-2 odds. After the race, Manning was suspended for three days but the result stands and New Approach is back on track. The Arc will be his target but he can get a prep race against other three-year-olds and avoid Curlin.
On the day after the Derby, the Prix de Diane (Fr-G1) was run at Chantilly at just over 1 1/4 miles for three-year-old fillies. ZARKAVA (Zamindar) easily stretched her undefeated streak to five with a dominant three-length win. With few worlds left to conquer, she will have a prep in the Prix Vermeille (Fr-G1) to get her ready for the Arc.
Zarkava is a "goosebump" horse. Headstrong and zany, when she decides to go, her acceleration is electrifying. I'll wait for her to do more before I get the superlative list out but as far as sheer talent, she's as good as any three-year-old in the world.
If you own a horse that is pointed for the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1), be afraid; be very afraid. When trainer Aidan O'Brien announces that Henrythenavigator is the best miler he has ever trained, it should send shock waves to the rest of the middle distance world.
Having trained the great Rock of Gibraltar (Ire), who won seven straight Group 1 races and would have won the Mile at Arlington if not for a horrible trip, when O'Brien says that Henry is better you have to sit up and take notice. After beating New Approach twice in the English and Irish Two Thousand Guineas, Henry came to Royal Ascot on Tuesday and promptly added the St. James's Palace S. (Eng-G1) to his resume.
Like Rock of Gibraltar, Henrythenavigator is able to sit off the pace and explode when John Murtagh presses the button. His pedigree says miler, his race record says miler and Aidan O'Brien has enough distance horses to handle the longer races so he'll probably stay at the mile distance.
How would you like to be Murtagh? He rides first call for the O'Brien juggernaut in the warm weather and spends part of the winter riding first call for Mike de Kock in Dubai. Already, in the first three days of Royal Ascot, he's won four Group 1 stakes -- all for O'Brien.
Dick Powell, Brisnet.com
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