Reigning “Horse of the Year” Curlin made a spectacular return to competition in the United States when he cruised to an easy 4 1/4-length victory over nine rivals in the 27th running of Saturday’s $1 million-guaranteed Stephen Foster Handicap (Grade I) for 3-year-olds and up at Churchill Downs.
Owned by Stonestreet Stables and Midnight Cry Stables and ridden by Robby Albarado, Curlin rallied from fourth to take the lead in the upper stretch and drew away to cover the 1 1/8-mile distance over a “fast” track in 1:49.68. The 4-to-10 favorite paid $2.80, $2.20 and $2.10. Einstein, a three-time Grade I stakes winner on turf who was making a rare start on dirt, rallied under Julien Leparoux to nip Barcola by a nose for second and paid $3.80 and $3.20. Barcola, who set a moderate pace under Jesus Castanon, finished third and paid $6.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, Curlin has now won five consecutive races – a string that includes four Grade I events – and is unbeaten in three starts in 2008. The winner of last fall’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Monmouth Park opened the year in Dubai with a pair of victories that included the $6 million Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba. He became the second winner of the world’s richest race to return to the U.S. to win the Stephen Foster Handicap. Street Cry won both races in 2002, while Dubai World Cup winners Silver Charm (1998) and Captain Steve (2001) each finished second in the Stephen Foster.
The 4-year-old son of Smart Strike improved his career record to 9-1-2 in 12 races and the winner’s share of $589,000 from the Stephen Foster Handicap’s record $1 million purse improved his career earnings to $9,396,800. The victory moved the Kentucky-bred Curlin closer to second-place Skip Away on American racing’s all-time earnings list. Skip Away earned $9,616,360 in his racing days, while Cigar remains the career leader with earnings of $9,999,815.
Curlin, who carried high weight of 128 pounds in the Stephen Foster and conceded anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds to Saturday’s opponents, broke in the middle of the field from his rail post and settled in fourth behind Barcola as the pacesetter led his nine rivals through easy fractions of :25.01 for the quarter, :49.28 for the half-mile and 1:13.41 for six furlongs. Curlin angled off the rail and took aim on the leader entering the homestretch, engaged the early leader in a brief battle for the lead and then drew off under a hand ride by Albarado for a comfortable win. Einstein, who settled in sixth early, rallied late to nip Barcola at the finish for the runner-up spot.
The victory by Curlin marked the second consecutive Stephen Foster Handicap victory for Albarado, who took last year’s renewal aboard Flashy Bull. It was the first victory in the race for Asmussen, who also saddled Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Pyro to win the $175,000-added Northern Dancer Stakes (GIII) for 3-year-olds earlier in the day.
The 4 1/4-length victory margin for Curlin was the second-largest in the 27-year history of the race. Only Street Cry, who won the race by 6 1/2 lengths in 2002, won the race more comfortably.
Grasshopper ran fourth, and was followed past the finish by Brass Hat, Jonesboro, Delightful Kiss, Sam P., High Blues and Red Rock Creek.
The Stephen Foster Handicap was the highlight of “Stephen Foster Super Saturday,” which featured six graded stakes races with total purses of $2.025 million.
STAKES QUOTES: THE STEPHEN FOSTER HANDICAP
STEVE ASMUSSEN (trainer, Curlin) - “It’s such an honor to be involved with this horse - he is such a beautiful animal. I’m so thankful to Mr. Jackson and the whole Stonestreet group and Midnight Cry to bring him back as a 4 year-old and just letting us enjoy him.”
(Q: What is it like for you to train a horse like Curlin?)
“A dream of a lifetime. You know, you are very fortunate to be involved with this sport to begin with, let alone to have an animal as special as he is.”
JESS JACKSON (co-owner, Curlin) - “Kentucky horsemen appreciate this horse. What he stands for is a classic champion and we’ll see how great he is because he is not fully defined.”
ROBBY ALBARADO (jockey, Curlin) - (on the ride) “Great, phenomenal; he’s an amazing horse. Again with his routine brilliance, he is in textbook form. He’s showing that he is a superstar. He prevailed for the fans and I’m proud of him-- he’s an amazing horse-- amazing athlete.”
(Q: What has it been like riding Curlin?)
“A stepping stone of every jockey’s dream and he fulfilled a lot for me-- taking me across the world and back. And I just look forward to the rest of the year and hopefully we can do it again for everyone.”
HELEN PITTS (trainer, Einstein) - “It’s a victory for us, I think. It really is. I thought we’d been nosed out for second, but I was still tickled to death with the way he finished. I didn’t think we had the best of trips with the pace that there was early. Like Julien (Leparoux) said, with no pace he kind of got shuffled around early and ended up back where he didn’t want to be, but he adapted to it.”
(Q: When he came to Barcola, what were you thinking?)
“When he came to him, it gives that horse more incentive. Curlin was far enough away that he was eyeing Barcola at that point. He had something to run at for second. I thought we had been nosed out for second, but I’m happy with the way it turned out. I said before at the beginning before the race ever ran, I’d be honored to be second to him (Curlin).”
(Q: Back to the turf for his next race?)
“Oh, absolutely. The Arlington Million is still the ultimate goal I’m not saying something like the Clark (Handicap) in the fall wouldn’t be an option. Obviously he likes this track. But going forward I think you absolutely stick with your same plan. We did this today to do what we had to do because, as you can see, when he’s ready to run, he’s ready to run.”
JULIEN LEPAROUX (jockey, Einstein) – “The outside horses broke quick and then they took back and there was no pace out there. I wish they would have gone in 1:10 (instead of 1:13.41). But my horse ran well; it’s no disgrace to run second to Curlin.”
JESUS CASTANON (jockey, Barcola) - “I was able to slow the pace down. Nobody would go with me, so I took advantage of it. When I asked him to go he picked it up real nice, but Curlin went around me. He just ran past my horse and he was trying to catch up with him, but that’s a different thing. Down the lane I thought I was going to be able to finish up for second, but he couldn’t hang on.”
GARRETT GOMEZ (jockey, Grasshopper) – “I was in a good spot going into the first turn, I thought. Curlin was down on the inside and real tight with a couple of horses. Then (Kent) Desormeaux (on Sam P.) pushed me out and I went from being three-wide to five-wide and by the time that happened we were three-quarters of the way around the first turn. They were really backing up. They were not going fast enough to say I am going to take back. We were in a pretty good spot and Curlin was the one that had to fight his way out. If I had had enough horse around the turn, he still would have been in there. At the time I asked him, he wasn’t there for me.”