Curlin calls it a career…?

Assistant trainer Scott Blasi leads jockey Robby Albarado and Champion Curlin out of the paddock before the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1).  

Assistant trainer Scott Blasi leads jockey Robby Albarado and Champion Curlin out of the paddock before the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs.

It’s official. At the end of the year, reigning Horse of the Year Curlin will be retired to stud.

This news has left me somewhat torn.

On one hand, I can not fault majority owner Jess Jackson for wanting to protect his investment. In these days of retiring any horse with a flash of talent after its three-year-old campaign (or in some cases, a decent two-year-old stand!), Jackson kept Curlin in the game and brought him to just about every dance while his rivals settled into their new careers.

Every time the Smart Strike colt set foot on a racetrack, Jackson put the big stinking paycheck tied to his star’s stallion potential in jeopardy. One bad step or dull effort would have taken huge sums of money out of Jackson’s pocket. But he still moved forward and Curlin did little else but reward him for his confidence. I have nothing but respect for the man and his respect for the sport.

At the same time, this does not stop me from wishing he would stay in training. When it comes to seeing the greats do their thing, I am a very greedy person; especially when the athlete in question is still sound of body, as I would assume would be the case with Curlin.

I must admit, I am a little biased in my position. As I have mentioned time and time again, I had the opportunity to watch Curlin race in person over the summer when he ran away with the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs. Because I was there to cover the race for the Thoroughbred Times’ website, I had the privilege of seeing the champ up close in the paddock, on the track and in the winner’s circle. I was less then three feet away from Curlin when I took the picture you see in this post, and I probably could have reached out and touched him during the post-race commotion if I were not so afraid of getting tackled by security.

I will share the full story of my Stephen Foster day at a later date, but for now I want to describe a couple observations about Curlin I largely formed from my few moments in his presence.

What I still can not get over to this day was how big he was. Having spent my entire life around Belgian draft horses, I usually note how tiny the Thoroughbreds I see at my local racing establishments appear to be. This was not the case with Curlin. From what I saw, the horse was a specimen. I am not sure if it was the physical size of the horse or merely his presence, but never before had a horse of any breed caused me to take pause, stare wide-eyed and mutter to myself “whoa.”

The other aspect of Curlin that stuck with me was the respect he commanded. Wherever Curlin was, that section of Churchill Downs was absolutely buzzing, and contrary to what one would expect from a racing crowd, none of it was negative. When he warmed up in the post parade, applause followed him across the grandstand, and when he came back, the cheers were the loudest I had ever heard at a racetrack. Coming from a place where genuine cheering at the racetrack is a rarity unless the a free t-shirt is involved, it was surreal to see a crowd so devoted to this animal and his handlers. This respect was further exemplified following the Breeders’ Cup Classic when a defeated Curlin received more applause from the Santa Anita crowd than the winner of the race, Raven’s Pass. There is no better way of putting it – that’s just cool.

But wait! Just because he is hanging it up in 2009 does not mean we have seen the last of Curlin on the racetrack. Check this out…

Curlin will remain in training with Steve Asmussen for now as his connections keep the options open for one final start.

“If an appropriate venue and purse are offered, we would consider one more race in 2008 for Curlin,” Jackson said.

Thoroughbred Times
November 16, 2008

While my money says we saw the last of Curlin in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), I would love to see him take the track one last time to try to finish his career on a high note.

If he does come back, most seem to think it will be in the Clark Handicap (G2) at Churchill Downs. Being as though he is currently in training there, it seems logical. If this becomes a reality, I will have no choice but to drive down to Louisville to see this. If I have learned anything this year, it is that I can successfully juggle trips to Kentucky with my responsibilities as a student and still come out on top. For an event like this, I couldn’t forgive myself if I passed it up.

The other possibility being thrown around is the Cigar Mile Handicap (G1) at Aqueduct. If he should choose this route, there would be significant poetic irony in the fact that Curlin would likely extend his all-time earnings record in a race named after the horse who he passed to get there. Though unlikely, I suppose there is also a possibility that the Curlin camp could goad a track into drawing up a new stakes race just for their horse, similar to what IEAH Stables did with Monmouth Park when they wanted Big Brown to have a Breeders’ Cup prep on the turf to fit their schedule.

Either way, Curlin has had a fantastic career. Whether or not he enters the gates again does not change his status as one of the greatest ever. I sure hope he gives it one more go though. You know, for old time’s sake.

——————

Here are some more pictures I took of Curlin on Stephen Foster day. None of them are of great quality, but please keep in mind that 1) I had important things to do and taking pictures was not on that list, 2) My camera does not handle adversity well at all, and 3) The place was a circus and people were everywhere, including in line of sight. 

Anyway, I hope you enjoy them.

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