- Paul Moran
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Eight paths or so from the rail with a quarter-mile to run in a journey has taken him halfway around the world and come full circle, Curlin lowered his head and measured the two horses he had not yet passed in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday at Belmont Park, the race in which he launched a streak of victories on dirt that has now spanned a year and the ages.
Like a copper bolt cutting through the mist and gloom that prevailed in New York on Gold Cup day, the best thoroughbred in the world on dirt, in this case mud, perhaps on any surface, made short work of the gritty veteran Wanderin Boy and Merchant Marine, the horse sent out by Allen Jerkens in the attempt to slay another giant, and without feeling the sting of jockey Robby Albarado's whip or finding the necessary to extend himself fully, took his second Gold Cup and with it $450,000 that carried him past Cigar in earnings and establishes a new earnings record for a horse based in North America -- $10,246,800 and counting.
The appreciative New York fans, who had send Curlin to the track to a round of applause, rushed to the rail to greet his return from his sixth consecutive victory on dirt with a chorus of cheers.
"I've only heard that once before at Belmont Park," Albarado said, "when I rode Mineshaft in this same race."
Curlin's streak includes, in addition to the matched set of Gold Cup wins, the Breeders' Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster Handicap and Woodward Stakes, all Grade I titles. This one will inevitably ignite a cacophonous clamor for a return to the Classic, which will be run over a synthetic course at Santa Anita that has inspired mixed early reviews that may give pause to owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen, who have expressed reservations about running Curlin on something other than dirt regardless of the anticipated presence of Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Haskell Invitational winning 3-year-old Big Brown.
Curlin will be given every chance to display an affinity for the new footing at Santa Anita. He will be shipped to California on Sunday.
"We will give [the Breeders' Cup] every bit of attention," principal owner Jess Jackson said by phone from Sonoma County, Calif., where he watched the Gold Cup on television while conducting a charity wine auction. "This was a lifetime thrill. Curlin is the epitome of my lifetime in racing. But the track at Santa Anita is a concern we still have."
"Wow," he said. "Just a hand ride. This is a lifetime thrill."
It appears after the Gold Cup that Curlin's form, as it did last year, is becoming stronger and sharper entering the autumn.
"You could tell that Robby was very confident," Asmussen said, "and Curlin was strong down the stretch. The consistency has just spoiled us. He's carried the weight of great expectations. The [Breeders' Cup] decision will be based on what's best for the horse – that been the philosophy all along and he's been able to do it on the highest level."
He carried those expectations like a feather over the last half-mile of the Gold Cup. The 2-5 favorite, fourth behind the frontrunning Wanderin Boy after 6 furlongs run in 1:13.08, hit the wire in 2:01.93, a final half in about 48 seconds despite losing a prodigious amount of ground.
Four Grade I races, all with clear Breeders' Cup implications, preceded the Gold Cup on the Belmont card.
A Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic already deeply intriguing gained new depth in the Beldame with the emergence of Cocoa Beach in the $600,000 Beldame. A mile and a half is Grand Couturier's best game and he has never been more impressive than he was in the $600,000 Joe Hirsh Turf Classic Invitational, responding when roused by jockey Alan Garcia with a powerful run that took him to a 101/4 -length victory that came on the heels of his second Sword Dancer Invitational victory last month at Saratoga and punched his ticket to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Dynaforce may have run a breakthrough race at age 5 in the $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational to establish her candidacy for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. The well-traveled 4-year-old Black Seventeen, shipped from California and dismissed at 23-1 in the $400,000 Vosburgh Stakes, won a hard-fought decision over Fabulous Strike by a head and is now in the Breeders' Cup Sprint mix.
The 4-year-old Cocoa Beach, undefeated in four starts in her native Chile in 2007 before being acquired by the Godolphin Stable and third against colts in the U.A.E. Derby in Dubai early this year after having won the U.A.E. Oaks, showed class, courage and an affinity for mud while upsetting the defending divisional champion Ginger Punch with a long, resolute drive beneath Ramon Dominguez that carried her to a half-length decision at the end of a strongly run nine-furlongs in 1:49.50.
"She's grown up a lot since she ran earlier in the year in Dubai," trainer Saeed bin Suroor said. "She looked stronger than ever and she learned a lot from her last race at Saratoga. The target in now the Breeders' Cup [Ladies' Classic]."
Ginger Punch, whose connection may take some solace from the fact the she finished third in the 2007 Beldame before winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff, set the pace while kept well off the rail by jockey Rafael Bejarano and under pressure from Lemon Drop Mom, disposed of that one leaving the quarter pole and responded when challenged, yielding finally in the last strides before the wire. The rail post, though only four started after Unbridled Belle was scratched, made the difference, trainer Bobby Frankel said: "It was the one hole. She had no choice but [to go for the lead]. I don't think that's her favorite way of running. I don't think the inside was the best part."
Grand Couturier survived a claim of foul before his victory was made official.
"I'm not sure what the objection was about," Garcia said."I thought the race was pretty clean. My horse really loved the soft course. I just asked him for run on the far turn and he just took off. He's gotten really good."
"It was just incredible, the acceleration," trainer Bobby Ribaudo said. "He just exploded."
The explosion took Grand Couturier to the wire in 2:34.84 on soft ground and is third Grade I victory at the distance.
Dynaforce's victory may have been directly related to the yielding ground more like the French courses over which she raced for most of her career. The pace she set was glacial (the first six furlongs run in 1:19.22) and, when challenged by 3-5 Mauralakana she had more than enough to repel favorite, drawing away to a 4-length decision while running 10 furlongs in 2:07.59 in what was her fourth start in the United States.
"I'm real proud of her," trainer Bill Mott said. "I saw the fractions and I thought the turf was pretty soft – I mean 2:07 for a mile and a quarter. She's run two good races [in the United States], and the Diana at Saratoga was a top race. A horse can't run any better than she did in the Diana and she ran second. As far as the Breeders' Cup, I'll have to talk with the owner [John A. Chandler] and discuss it."
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.