Reigning “Horse of the Year” Curlin successfully completed the first step in what could be a journey to Paris to run in the famed Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with a solid work under jockey Robby Albarado over the Matt Winn Turf Course on Tuesday at Churchill Downs.
Stonestreet Stables and Midnight Cry Stable’s 4-year-old son of Smart Strike worked in company with Stonestreet’s Hawaii Calls, a 4-year-old son of Fusaichi Pegasus, and covered seven furlongs around the “dogs” on “firm” turf in 1:31.20. The Steve Asmussen-trained champion started the work about one length behind his workmate, who is a two-time winner in eight career starts, and finished on even terms. Curlin finished well as Churchill Downs clockers recorded his final quarter mile in :24.20 and his final eighth in :12.20. He galloped out one mile in 1:45.30. Hawaii Calls was timed in 1:31.40 for the seven furlongs on turf.
“We were very excited to work him, he’s a tremendous athlete,” Asmussen said. “We were very pleased with how he looked. The main thing is that Robby loved how he felt.”
“He was as fluid as always,” Albarado said. “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 were like he knew where he was the whole time. He’s a horse who’s very smart now and he’s very aware of his surroundings, and this morning he felt great.”
Curlin scored an emphatic 4 ¼-length victory in Churchill Downs’ $1 million Stephen Foster Handicap (Grade I) in his most recent race. It marked his fifth consecutive victory – a string that also includes Grade I wins in the $6 million Dubai World Cup, $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The Stephen Foster victory improved his career record to 9-1-2 in 12 races and pushed his lifetime earnings to $9,396,800 – the third-highest North American total in Thoroughbred racing behind top earners Cigar ($9,999,815) and Skip Away ($9,616,30).
But all of Curlin’s races have been on dirt, which made Tuesday’s work on grass a critical step in realizing the hopes of Stonestreet owner Jess Jackson and Asmussen to give the champion a shot in the Oct. 5 Arc de Triomphe (G1) at Longchamp Racecourse in Paris, Europe’s top test for older horses. Curlin’s regular exercise rider Carlos Rosas was aboard Hawaii Calls for this work, while Albarado worked the champion for just the second time in the colt’s career.
“The reason I wanted Robby to work him today was for him to feel,” Asmussen said. “I think that Curlin deserves to be prepared for what’s going to happen. Everybody was very pleased with how he handled it. He is blowing off of this move, but seven-eighths in 1:31-and-change around the dogs here is a very good move. I thought that he (galloped) out exceptional, as always. One thing that I really liked about it is when he went on the turf course and jogged off, he kept that presence about him – there was no caution, no worry. He was very confident and very relaxed behind that horse. He paced him well and didn’t get aggressive, like he was unsure of what he was supposed to do. I thought he picked him up very smoothly. When he got to him, head and head, he was a little aggressive again, which is what you expect from him at that stage.”
“I was more nervous working him this morning than I was riding him in the Foster – that’s the honest truth,” Albarado said. “It’s his first time on the turf and it’s an exciting time for all of us.”
Asmussen continues to point Curlin toward a racing debut on turf on July 12 in either the $500,000 Man o’ War Stakes (GI) at 1 3/8 miles at New York’s Belmont Park or the $200,000 Arlington Handicap (GIII) at 1 ¼ miles at Chicago’s Arlington Park. Concern about licensing of the colt’s minority owners remains a factor in both jurisdictions, so the question of which race will mark Curlin’s turf debut remains unsettled. But, if all goes well in that race, Stonestreet and Asmussen would look to Paris and the rare bid by a top American horse for the Arc.
“The perfect plan for us – for me, for Curlin and for everybody associated with him – is to first establish his level of quality on the turf with his next race and not get ahead of ourselves,” Asmussen said. “We have to see if he can compete at the same level – a nice work is not a graded stake. If he can compete at his level on the turf and we get the race that we expect, we will map out how to win the Arc with him. I think that getting him over there immediately and getting him used to going right (on right-handed turns) would be the biggest obstacle that we face. I think we establish that he’s as good a horse on the turf as he is on the dirt, then we get him over there and get him relaxed, comfortable and confident, and doing right.”
The most recent major American dirt star to make the trip to Paris for the Arc de Triomphe was Jack Price’s 1961 Kentucky Derby winner Carry Back. That colt finished 10th in a field of 24 horses in the 1962 Arc.