ARCADIA, Calif. — About a mile into Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, it appeared the one nagging question still lingering over Curlin and his much-talked-about legacy was about to become a moot point.
There was the massive chestnut colt unleashing that oh-so-familiar sweeping move around the turn, and there was his famously fluid stride churning relentlessly and swallowing up competitors in his wake.
As quickly as the brilliance materialized, however, it all started fading away. And as the reigning Horse of the Year labored down the rest of the Santa Anita Park stretch, another wonderfully talented chestnut powerhouse ran by to snatch his own piece of immortality.
Raven's Pass, the Group I-winning European invader from the barn of trainer John Gosden, ruined Curlin's attempt at a second straight Classic triumph and an indelible place in history when he surged past the champion on the outside and exploded down the lane to capture the 11/4-mile test by 13/4 lengths in one of the most memorable upsets in Breeders' Cup Classic history.
A son of Elusive Quality, Raven's Pass won the race in a track-record time of 1:59.27.
Moments after the victory, winning jockey Frankie Dettori tossed his whip about 15 feet in the air before the crowd of 51,331.
"Brilliant, a dream come true," said Dettori, who earned his eighth Breeders' Cup triumph and his first in the Classic. "I've been on him a couple times in the morning since he's been here and he was handling this track so good, I was afraid it was too good to be true."
With his record bankroll of more than $10 million, his seven Grade I triumphs and consistently impeccable form, the only doubt hanging over Curlin entering this year's Classic centered around Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface, which he had never raced on before.
After rating in eighth, about eight lengths off pacesetter Casino Drive, Curlin seemed to be putting that doubt to rest when he surged up five-wide approaching the turn, grabbed a short lead at the head of the lane, and looked like he was going to draw off with his customary ease.
"Curlin's been in that position turning for home and he's never lost," jockey Robby Albarado said. "He made his run but got a little late in the stretch."
As they settled in for the stretch run, Raven's Pass — who had artfully rated just behind Curlin throughout — advanced alongside the suddenly stalled champ and launched into another gear.
"It was a worry moment for a split second when I asked him, would he pick up or falter, but he did pick up," Dettori said. "I could feel he was still galloping strong and millions of emotions went through my head."
Unable to find his familiar kick over the synthetic surface, Curlin faded to fourth as Henrythenavigator rallied on the rail for second with Tiago third.
"It was absolutely the Pro-Ride surface (that beat him). He ran his heart out and gave it all he had," said Curlin's trainer Steve Asmussen.
Although the high-profile Coolmore duo of Henrythenavigator and Duke of Marmalade were considered the top European threats, Raven's Pass had quietly been improving throughout the summer under Gosden's care.
Owned by Princess Haya and Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable, Raven's Pass had defeated Henrythenavigator in the Group I Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Sept. 27.
Although he was stretching out beyond a mile for the first time, Gosden knew the synthetic ground would be the perfect fit to his colt's style.
"(The Classic) has always been in our minds. To run in the Mile would have proved nothing either way," said Gosden, who saddled Royal Heroine to victory in the 1984 Mile for his only other Breeders' Cup win. "Suddenly, the second half of the year into the fall he's gotten bigger and stronger and a more magnificent horse. He's one of the best I've trained.
"I've been like a coil spring for this visit. I knew I had the horse that could do the job."
Casino Drive, who was unbeaten in three career starts, faded to last in the 12-horse field after setting fractions of :23.77 and :47.60 while five-time Group I winner Duke of Marmalade gave way inside the final furlong to come home ninth.
While Curlin's place in racing history was secure regardless of what transpired Saturday, his hopes for a second straight Horse of the Year title are not so safe. The undefeated filly Zenyatta could garner her share of first-place votes.
He may not figure into the year-end honors but, on the biggest stage of his career, Raven's Pass made the statement many thought would come from a different chestnut Saturday.
"Curlin set the standard, he's a great horse and he's still a great horse," Gosden said. "But you know when you fight, there's always a chance the challenger can come and catch you with the left hook."