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Summing Up Curlin

As has been widely discussed, Curlin is set to retire at the end of this year. A final start seems increasingly unlikely and would not really add much to his resume or bank balance; going out on a win would simply add an appropriate coda to his story.

In many ways, Curlin’s career has been emblematic of the sport as a whole; we will be able to look back in the future and see how he carried on through what may eventually be viewed as something of a transformational era in horse racing. It did not follow historical precedent, but at the same time it was not a classic case of swimming against the tide.

Curlin was unraced at two — not the usual template for a Derby winner, even with some impressive wins at three. He carried plenty of human baggage as well; a switch from an honest, if under-acclaimed trainer in Helen Pitts who had gotten him that far to one who played the game at the corporate level — drugs included. Add in some decidedly sketchy owners (who had become partial owners, and were shortly to become inmates) and the package was not an appealing one, even if the horse looked the part.

His third-place finish in the Derby was more than one might have expected, given his experience — but it was his Preakness victory that hinted at what might be. Participating in what was likely the most thrilling Belmont of the past 25 years only added another feather to his cap, even in defeat. Another defeat followed in the Haskell, but it looked like a maturing Curlin got all the pieces in place for his final two races that year, using his now-trademark acceleration in both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

His four-year-old campaign may have been midwifed by the ongoing legal issues surrounding his part-owners — we are unlikely to know for certain what impact that had on majority owner Jess Jackson’s welcome decision to keep him in training in an era when breeding seems to earn more prestige (and certainly more money) than success on the track — but we finally got to see what a horse at the height of his powers was capable of.

Curlin was able to take on the rest of the world drug-free in the Dubai World Cup, winning with great ease, and became something of an anomaly in American racing by returning to the United States and keeping off the steroid regimen than had become so routine at his level (not to mention within his barn). In the wake of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and its aftermath, drugs suddenly became unwelcome (at least in public) and Jackson announcing that his star would keep running without the juice (while admitting the legal drugs in question were a part of his previous preparation) was something the industry badly needed.

The attempt to craft a more international and varied career for Curlin was most welcome. While it demonstrated that dirt was his preferred surface, one is left to wonder how adept he might have become on grass had he trained on it longer — it will remain an unknown, but it’s possible that with more time he could have taken on some of Europe’s best on their home turf.

His final two wins gave him the North American earnings record, passing the great Cigar in the process. While direct comparisons don’t really work, one thing both horses had in common is that neither really had a worthy competitor during their best period — those who might have challenged them had already gone off to stud or had not yet attained their own best form.

And now Curlin will follow them. His transformation from a promising colt with some negative associations and a drug habit into a mature horse, able to take on all comers without benefit of steroids might prove something of a model for horse racing as a whole. Given this year’s rash of retirements, however, it may be some time before the sport gets the message. Here’s hoping someone takes notice.

4 comments to Summing Up Curlin

  • libby

    I have to find a new horse to fall in love with now.

  • El Angelo

    Nice piece. I actually think Curlin’s a tad overrated, but he was clearly a very good horse. I think a big problem he had this year was that there was no signature race for his 4yo campaign; his stateside wins were workmanlike in effort, and nobody saw the Dubai races.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like you are an idiot el angelo, sorry u cant see greatness

  • Superfecta

    Actually, I’d agree with el angelo; I don’t think we really got the chance to see what Curlin was capable of (although we got more than we do for most these days) – it would have been nice to see a sort of capstone race Stateside.

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