ARCADIA, Calif. -- With a Horse of the Year title, a record bankroll, and seven Grade 1 stakes wins all on his resume, there is no question that Curlin is the best, most accomplished horse in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.
But the great unknown, what makes the last of the 14 Breeders' Cup races that will be run on Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita so compelling, is whether Curlin can reproduce his typically outstanding form on a synthetic surface. He has raced 15 times, 14 on dirt, once on turf, but never on a synthetic surface. The Classic will be run over Pro-Ride.
"Synthetic is a new part of the equation," said his trainer, Steve Asmussen.
To pull off another win, at the end of a long, ambitious season, would be the ultimate testament to his true greatness.
It will not be easy. The field for the 1 1/4-mile Classic includes Colonel John, the winner of the Travers Stakes, three outstanding imports from Europe - Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and Raven's Pass - synthetic track specialists Go Between and Student Council, and the unbeaten Casino Drive.
There is no obvious second choice in the race. Curlin has been the odds-on favorite in his last five races, and while it's unlikely he will that short on Saturday, he is a cut above the competition on his best day.
"It's a wide-open race, with the obvious exception of Curlin," said Eoin Harty, who trains Colonel John.
Curlin has won his last seven races on dirt, including the Dubai World Cup in March. When he won the Classic last year at Monmouth Park, he earned his Horse of the Year title. When he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup last month, Curlin became the first horse based in North America to go over $10 million in career earnings.
"Curlin has always spoiled us with his consistency," Asmussen said. "I'm so impressed with him after he's made $10 million. He's looked absolutely fabulous in the California sunshine."
The Europeans are an intriguing bunch. Although they all have raced exclusively on turf, they have trained on synthetic surfaces at home before traveling, and there is a widely held theory that turf horses have an easier time adjusting to a synthetic track than a dirt track. Among them, Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and Raven's Pass have won 10 Group 1 races.
"They're not going to have to deal with the slop at Monmouth, or deal with the kickback you get on dirt," Harty said. "European Group 1's are tough. There's no ducking and diving from each other like in the United States. Everyone thinks Curlin is the horse to beat, but these horses from Europe are no slouch. They should not be overlooked."
Colonel John will be facing older horses for the first time. This year's crop of 3-year-olds generally is considered below par. A win or even a strong performance by Colonel John would go a long way toward eliminating that perception.
"The only advantage is we don't have to ship," Harty said. "The race is stocked with talent, from here or Europe or Asia for that matter."
Casino Drive is the Asian invasion. After being scratched from the Belmont Stakes in June, he returned to Japan to recuperate, then came here earlier this month and beat an allowance field at Santa Anita on Oct. 12.
Go Between has made all five of his starts this year on synthetic surfaces, and has finished either first or second each time, with a victory in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar and second-place finishes in the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup.
Student Council disappointed in this year's Pacific Classic, but he has been training sensationally the past three weeks for Asmussen.
"I thought he was a little flat in the Pacific Classic," Asmussen said. "We gave him some time. I expect him to run one of his best races."
Tiago came off a layoff to finish second in the Goodwood four weeks ago. His trainer, John Shirreffs, is one of the best at bringing a horse to a peak performance when it matters most.
Champs Elysees, who primarily has raced on turf, finished boldly for third in the Santa Anita Handicap in his only start on a synthetic surface. He is adding blinkers, and worked sharply in them earlier this week.
Fairbanks has won his last two starts, and figures to take up the early running in a fairly paceless race.
Smooth Air, 3, has never faced older runners. His biggest win this year came in the Ohio Derby.