LOUISVILLE — At this point in the career of reigning Horse of the Year Curlin, the question is not whether he'll go down in history but rather where he'll rank in horse racing's pantheon.
On Tuesday, the son of Smart Strike took his initial steps toward notching a distinction that would be unmatched in his sport's history.
In what could go down as the most important move of his meteoric career, Curlin tested the turf for the first time Tuesday morning when he completed a seven-furlong breeze over Churchill Downs' turf course in a solid 1:31.20 in the company of stablemate Hawaii Calls.
The decision to work Curlin on the turf was born out of the desire by owners Stonestreet Stables and Midnight Cry Stables to point their champion toward a start in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Oct. 5.
In his first outing on the grass, the 4-year-old chestnut colt kept that lofty goal alive as he covered the final quarter in :24.20 around the pylons to just edge his stablemate after starting the move about a length behind.
”He was as fluid as always,“ said regular jockey Robby Albarado, who worked Curlin for just the second time in his career. ”He's got a great way of moving and he covers a lot of ground and I felt like this morning was no different.
”His initial steps on the turf was like he knew where he was the whole time and he's a horse who is very smart now and very aware and this morning he felt great.“
Hawaii Calls completed his move in 1:31.40.
The magnitude of Curlin's latest trip to the track was evident to even a novice observer.
While turf works usually generate only a smattering of attention, throngs of photographers were lined up as Curlin made his way around the course.
Instead of having regular exercise rider Carlos Rosas in the irons, trainer Steve Asmussen wanted Albarado aboard in order to get the truest feedback on how Curlin's action on the grass compares to what he feels on the dirt.
”The reason I wanted Robby to work him today is for him to feel what he expects and sort of the acceleration,“ Asmussen said. ”I think Curlin deserves to be prepared for what will happen and everyone was pleased with how he handled it.
”One thing I really liked about it is when he went on the turf course and jogged off he kept that presence about him. No caution, no worry. Just very confident. He was very relaxed behind that horse and didn't get aggressive like he was unsure of what he was supposed to do.“
Added Albarado, ”I was more nervous this morning working him than I was riding him (to victory) in the Stephen Foster, honest truth.“
While Curlin has never competed on the turf before, the muscular chestnut has some key factors in his favor.
His sire, Smart Strike, is also the sire of last year's champion turf male English Channel. And Asmussen's brother, former jockey Cash Asmussen, won the Arc in 1991 aboard Suave Dancer.
”I would be mistaken to suggest I'd be thinking of it if I didn't know I had (his knowledge),“ Steve Asmussen said of his brother's potential help.
Should Curlin come out of his work in good order, he would likely make his turf debut in either the Grade III Arlington Handicap at Arlington Park or the Grade I Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park, both of which are held on July 12.
Which race Curlin ends up in is dependent on the resolution of legal issues surrounding the licensing of jailed Midnight Cry owners William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr., both of whom are awaiting a federal jury's verdict in the Fen-Phen criminal trial.
Midnight Cry does not currently have a license in Illinois or New York.
”It's frustrating but I think it's an issue we can resolve,“ said Barbara Banke, wife of Stonestreet Stables owner Jess Jackson.
Asmussen said he plans to work Curlin on the main dirt track this Monday.
With nine wins from 12 career starts — including victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup - and a bankroll of $9,396,800, Curlin's legacy is cemented regardless of whether he makes it to Paris.
But should he become the first North American horse to capture the Arc, Curlin would set a standard that might never be duplicated.
”I think it is about how good can he be?“ Asmussen said. ”He's still developing and... I'm blessed for the opportunity to see how good this horse can get.
”I think the perfect plan for us is to first establish his level of quality on the turf with his next race and not get ahead of ourselves. A nice work is not a graded stakes.“