Curlin making Saratoga debut

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Curlin, the world's top Thoroughbred on dirt, faces seven challengers Saturday in the $500,000 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.

Only a second-place finish on grass in the July 13 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park blemishes nearly a year of dominance for the champion 3-year-old of 2007. Curlin has won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders' Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster Handicap.

He brings $9.46 million in earnings to his Saratoga debut, third highest all-time, and is positioned to overtake Skip Away, whose career total is more than $9.6 million. A win at the Woodward Stakes would move him closer to Cigar, who retired in 1996 with almost $10 million in earnings.

A victory would put Curlin in elite company. Past winners of the Woodward include Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the last two winners of the Triple Crown. Alysheba, Cigar, Mineshaft, Ghostzapper and Saint Liam were all winners of this race in seasons when each earned a Horse of the Year title.

"One of the great things about (principal owner Jess Jackson) keeping him in training is being able to run in a race with this history," said Scott Blasi, chief assistant to Steve Asmussen, who trains Curlin. "There are only so many opportunities. We've never dodged anyone, never had anything given to us. He's always earned it."

While Curlin advances toward a successful defense of his Horse of the Year title, his opponents in the Woodward, while stopping short of concession, agree that the 3-5 favorite is an imposing presence.

"I have a lot of respect for Curlin," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Divine Park, winner of the Metropolitan Handicap in May at Belmont Park. "If both of us have a perfect day, he's better than us. But I am confident we have the best chance to beat him."

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who will challenge Curlin with 6-year-old A.P. Arrow, is hoping other forces are at work in his favor.

"We're going to hope for the mystique of Saratoga and the 'Graveyard of Champions' and all that stuff," Pletcher said. "We need all of those stars to align and all the planets to align and we need everything, and then some, to go right. He's a better horse at this stage, but we'll see. Things happen sometimes."

Cocoa Beach triumphs

Cocoa Beach won the $91,950 Love Sign Stakes for fillies and mares Friday at Saratoga, beating Striking Tomisue by five lengths.