LOUISVILLE — Unlike last Saturday, this time the superstar delivered.
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There is only one true superstar on the Thoroughbred racing planet right now, and it isn't that worn-out 3-year-old who dissolved into a Big Brown meltdown in the Long Island heat during last Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
Curlin is king of the Sport of Kings, as the reigning Horse of the Year proved again Saturday, carrying 128 pounds in comfortable fashion, assuming control at the head of the stretch and cruising to a 4¼-length win in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Remember that pre-Belmont chatter of a possible matchup, if not match race, between Big Brown and Curlin somewhere down the line?
Judging by the events of the past two Saturdays, it would be no match.
“This horse is just a dream of a lifetime,” said Steve Asmussen, the victorious trainer, who on Father's Day eve was surrounded by his three young sons, all wearing the same-design suit as the one worn by their father.
“I'm so thankful to Mr. (Jess) Jackson and Midnight Cry and the whole ownership group for bringing him back as a 4-year-old and letting us enjoy him,” Asmussen said.
It was Curlin's first race since he won in Dubai on March 29. It was his first race on U.S. soil since winning the Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park last October. He was spotting his foes between 10-15 pounds, a handicap Asmussen groused about during the week. He was breaking from the No. 1 post.
“You're very nervous until you saw his head peek through the daylight at the head of the stretch,” Asmussen said. “When (jockey) Robby (Albarado) moved forward on him, the horse just lengthened stride and looked tremendous.”
Curlin is tremendous. He was a bit too green to win last year's Kentucky Derby, finishing third. He rebounded to nip Street Sense at the wire to win the Preakness. He lost the Belmont by a head to Rags to Riches. After a disappointing third in the Haskell, Curlin has ripped off five straight wins: the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Jaguar Trophy Handicap in Dubai, the World Cup in Dubai, and now the Stephen Foster.
His earnings have grown to $9.38 million, placing him behind Cigar's $9.99 million and Skip Away's $9.62.
Better still, the sport has prospered. To be sure, considering the legal problems of the minority Midnight Cry ownership, there are extenuating reasons Curlin is still racing. But the horse is a sterling example of what can happen when the sport keeps its stars on the track instead of shipping them so early to the breeding shed. A crowd estimated between 12,000 to 15,000 turned out at Churchill on Saturday.
“I don't know how many people have thanked us,” Jackson said, “and we've thanked them.”
“I can't tell you what a fan I am of his,” said Asmussen.
Racing fans were hoping for, down the road, a Big Brown-Curlin battle. Best 3-year-old vs. best 4-year-old. Asmussen, who can be a bit prickly but who keeps things low-key, vs. the brash, confident Dutrow, who had said that a race between the two would be good for the sport, good for Big Brown and bad for Curlin.
That was before the Belmont.
“Last year spoiled us,” Asmussen said. “For Hard Spun, Street Sense and Curlin to show up that many times and run that many excellent races, that's so rare. And now everybody's expecting that to show up, and they're talking match race and down the road. Down the road? It's the sooner the better because you're not always going to be in this position.
“You have to know how rare this is. And you have to savor it.”