ARCADIA, Calif. — There are few better straight shooters on any backstretch in the world than the venerable John Gosden.
So it was appropriate the longtime trainer summed up the theme of Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic in one succinct statement.
"Curlin sets the benchmark and he'd hold his own in most generations," Gosden said of the reigning Horse of the Year and defending Classic winner. "But someone has to come and take him on. We can't all be wimps and go hide."
Despite Curlin's litany of accolades and near flawless form, 11 rivals are set to line up against the 4-year-old in the 11/4-mile Classic.
Majority owner Jess Jackson has repeatedly said this year was specifically about building Curlin's legacy, and a win Saturday would put him in rarefied company.
In addition to joining Tiznow (2000 and 2001) as the only two-time Classic winner, a second victory would likely cement a second Horse of the Year title for Curlin, making him the first since Cigar (1995 and 1996) to notch that feat.
If there is one thing that might make Curlin vulnerable it's that he has never raced over a synthetic surface before, a fact that openly concerns trainer Steve Asmussen.
By contrast, the Bill Mott-trained Go Between and WinStar Farm's Colonel John are proven commodities over synthetics with the former taking the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August and Colonel John winning the Santa Anita Derby last spring.
"I would not have entered him if I did not believe with all my heart and soul this horse has the ability to run with these horses," said Eoin Harty, trainer of Colonel John.
Colonel John has not raced since winning the Grade I Travers Stakes on Aug. 23.
Grade I winner Tiago is another potential dark horse. He unleashed a furious charge from last in the Grade I Goodwood on Sept. 27 to finish a game second behind Well Armed.
In addition to the surface and a possible lack of pace, Curlin will also have to deal with as strong a European onslaught as has been seen in recent years.
Gosden will saddle improving Group I winner Raven's Pass, who will be stretching out beyond a mile for the first time.
Perhaps the biggest threat comes from the barn of Aidan O'Brien. He will send out five-time Group I winner Duke of Marmalade and four-time Group I winner Henrythenavigator.
"I don't think we've probably ever had two better colts as racehorses," O'Brien said. "They haven't missed a dance and they haven't sidestepped a race."