"Horse of the Year" Curlin, winner of the $1 million Stephen Foster Handicap (Grade I) at Churchill Downs in his most recent start, departed the Louisville track late Thursday morning on a journey to New York, where the 4-year-old son of Smart Strike will make his debut on grass in Saturday's $500,000-added Man O' War (GI) at Belmont Park.
Trainer Steve Asmussen led the chestnut colt from his barn to a van that carried Curlin and other members of Asmussen's stable to New York. While Curlin is heading to Belmont Park for Saturday's race, the bulk of Asmussen's stable at Churchill Downs was bound for Saratoga Race Course for the summer.
Asmussen admitted to being "anxious" about Curlin's journey before the van pulled away for the trip to Louisville International Airport, where he and the other horses were scheduled to board an equine transport flight to New York. But the same word was appropriate when he talked of Saturday's turf debut in the Man O' War and its implications regarding hopes by majority owner Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Farm and Asmussen that Curlin could run in the Oct. 5 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. The Arc will carry a record purse this year of four million euros, or roughly $5.8 million, and this year will be the world's richest turf race.
"It's part of the process," Asmussen said. "You think about where it is and everything involved, along with Stonestreet, Mr. Jackson and everybody who's involved. It's another step in trying to prove his quality."
Curlin's rivals in the 1 3/8-mile Man O' War are expected to included a pair of winners of the $2 million John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (GI) in Red Rocks, who won the race at Churchill Downs in 2006, and Better Talk Now, who upset turf champion Kitten's Joy to take the race at Lone Star Park in 2004. Other likely rivals include Grand Couturier, who took the Sword Dancer Invitational (GI) at Saratoga last year.
"It's another great test for a great horse," Asmussen said. "It's a big test that we have in front of us in the accomplishments of the field and who they are. It's our first step on the turf and there are so many questions. But I can't say enough about how proud we are to be involved with Curlin."
Asmussen said that he and Jackson would be looking to see if the Curlin that runs on turf in the Man O' War is the same horse that has dazzled the world in victories in last fall's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (GI) and this year's $6 million Dubai World Cup (GI) at Nad al Sheba.
"It's a race," Asmussen said. "You want to see how fast you are and his consistency. The races that he has spoiled us with all of last year as well as early in this year - we want more of the same."
Curlin's victory in the Stephen Foster Handicap on June 14 lifted his career record to 9-1-2 in 12 races with earnings of $9,396,800 - a total that currently ranks third all-time in American racing. He trails only Cigar ($9,999,815) and Skip Away ($9,616,360).