The Grey Panel


Big Reds

It would have been unrealistic to hope that the 40th anniversary of ’s Belmont Stakes victory would feature a performance of similar magnificence. Needless to say, Palace Malice is no Secretariat – but that’s no disgrace, as Secretariats only come along once a lifetime (if one’s lucky). However, what was nice was that ’s Belmont victory did prompt a little reminder of ‘Big Red’ as the colt comes from the first crop of the mighty , a lovely horse who, although not quite in Secretariat’s class, also brought this distinguished nickname to mind, writes John Berry.

When a horse retires to stud, there are no guarantees. While there have been plenty of tremendous racehorses who have become tremendous stallions, there have also been plenty of outstanding racehorses who have ended up as moderate stallions. Few horses in recent years have carried the aura of class possessed by Curlin, who retired to Lane’s End Farm in 2009 (at a fee of $75,000) as a hugely exciting prospect. It is, though, far from unknown for hugely exciting prospects to become notable flops - so it is now lovely to see that Curlin has sired a Classic winner in his first crop and is now, surely, set to consolidate his place as one of the most distinguished stallions at stud in Kentucky.

For a horse who clearly ranks as exceptionally handsome, Curlin was – in retrospect – surprisingly inexpensive as a yearling in 2005, when he was sold for $57,000. He came from a good family (his grand-dam had been a Grade Two winner, while his third dam was already the third-dam of , winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 1997) but not a spectacularly successful one; while his size might have been off-putting for many purchasers, aware that large horses can sometimes take longer to mature, and that it can be even more a matter of guesswork how the horse might end up.

Curlin’s purchasers in 2005 were the Kentucky-based lawyers William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, acting under the nom de courses of Midnight Cry Stable. They put him into training with Helen Pitts, who unsurprisingly elected not to run such a big horse as a two-year-old. However, while he clearly wasn’t precocious, Curlin wasn’t particularly backward either: he made his debut in a 7-furlong three-year-olds’ maiden race at Gulfstream Park in Florida in the first week of February 2007, and the result was stunning: Curlin bolted up by 12.75 lengths.

In the 82.10 seconds which it took Curlin to cover those seven furlongs, he went from obscurity to ‘hot property’. Offers to buy him came flooding in, and the Midnight Cry principals accepted a bid of $3.5 million for 80% of their colt, offered by a consortium consisting of Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Satish Sanan’s Padua Stables and San Francisco-based financier George Bolton. The deal saw Curlin transferred from Pitts’ stable to that of the leading interstate conditioner Steve Asmussen.

Curlin’s first start for Asmussen came six weeks later in the Grade Three Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Robbie Alborado took over the mount from Rafael Bejarano (and subsequently retained it throughout the horse’s career) but the result was the same: he easily took his record to two from two, winning by 5.25 lengths. A month later he tackled the Grade Two Arkansas Derby over nine furlongs on the same track, and his win in that was even more impressive as he stormed home by 10.5 lengths. When he tackled the Kentucky Derby three weeks later, he was clearly a hugely talented horse, but would he be seasoned enough?

As it turned out, he wasn’t seasoned enough for the Kentucky Derby. In a typically competitive 20-runner battle, he got a bit lost in the first half of the race before staying on well in the closing stages to finish a brave third, beaten by the more experienced (who had won the previous season’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) and the super-tough , who had made a bold bid to make all the running.

A tough, brave horse, Curlin clearly thrived on his Kentucky Derby baptism of fire. He was wiser and stronger for the experience, as she showed two weeks later when he exacted revenge on Street Sense by beating that horse by a head in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes. Obviously the smaller field (of nine runners, compared to the 20 at Churchill Downs) helped the less experienced horse (especially as Curlin got back in the field after stumbling coming out of the stalls) but Curlin was now a tough professional anyway, as he showed by emerging victorious in a tremendous race, hitting the front in the final stride to win by a head. To emphasise the consistency, as well as the class, of that year’s Triple Crown contenders, the box trifecta was the same, with Hard Spun taking third place, four lengths behind the principals.

Understandably, bearing in mind both his progressive profile and his strong-finishing running style, Curlin went off favourite for the Belmont Stakes three weeks later. Street Sense wasn’t in the line-up this time, but good old Hard Spun, despite being a speed-orientated son of , showed up again to bid for glory at a mile and a half. Being as brave as he was, Hard Spun duly ran another mighty race (finishing a tired fourth after racing predictably fiercely in the early stages) but he wasn’t Curlin’s principal rival in either the betting or the race: that turned out to be the terrific filly , who had already proved herself to be as good as she was bred to be, by winning three consecutive Grade One races against her own sex in the spring, culminating in an easy victory in the Kentucky Oaks.

That Belmont Stakes duly went into the annals as one of the great renewals, Rags To Riches getting the better of Curlin by a head after the pair had raced neck and neck through the final two furlongs. Rags To Riches’ half-brother had won the race the previous year (2006) but there was no doubt that Rags To Riches and Curlin had combined to treat New York racegoers to a much classier display altogether.

Disappointingly, Rags To Riches never won again after her historic Belmont Stakes triumph – but her victim certainly did, Curlin going from strength to strength. He raced three more times that year for two more Grade One wins, while his four-year-old campaign in 2008 saw him race seven times for five victories. Having sustained an odds-on defeat at the hands of and Hard Spun in the Grade One Haskell Invitational over nine furlongs at Monmouth Park (when giving 4lb to his conquerors) on his next start after the Belmont Stakes, Curlin finished 2007 on a high. Having beaten the top-class four-year-old in the Jockey Club Gold Cup over 10 furlongs at Belmont Park, Curlin ended his year in a blaze of glory by taking the Breeders’ Cup Classic at a muddy Monmouth Park, beating Hard Spun by four and a half lengths – with their old rival Street Sense finishing fourth (a length behind the third-placed ).

As such a big and progressive horse, Curlin was clearly ‘something to look forward to’ as a four-year-old. His connections could easily have opted for the financially prudent, less adventurous option of retiring him to stud – but they took the bold and sporting route, keeping him in training in 2008. What must have made this bold decision relatively easy to take was the fact that the world’s richest race, the $5 million Dubai World Cup at the end of March, was his for the taking. With that formality out of the way, it would become a lot easier not to dwell on all the stud fees which he wasn’t earning!

Curlin duly headed out to Dubai in the early spring of 2008. He had a warm-up race at Nad Al Sheba at the end of February (in, remarkably, a handicap, in which he carried 60 kg and his five second-rate rivals were all on the minimum of 53 kg). Inevitably, he won the race with ludicrous ease and increased his bank balance by a tiny fraction – but, more importantly, he confirmed himself spot-on for the big race, and had a good work-out to boot, running the 10 furlongs on dirt in the stunningly fast time of 2:00.60, a remarkable time for a horse winning under a big weight with his head in his chest. Four weeks later he won the Dubai World Cup equally easily (in a slower time), waltzing past the post 7.75 lengths in front of with such top-liners as , and well in arrears.

After that breath-taking display of brilliance, it was almost a disappointment that Curlin didn’t go through the rest of the year unbeaten. In one sense, though, he was unlucky as that was the first year that the Breeders’ Cup Classic wasn’t run on the dirt, and the synthetic surface at Santa Anita (on which he could only finish fourth behind , and , and which was tailor-made for the European turf horses) was far less suitable for such a powerful, long-striding horse than traditional dirt. He would surely have won that year’s Classic had it been run on dirt - and his other defeat, too, was on an unfamiliar surface, as he went down in a boilover to the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner in the Man O’War Stakes at Belmont on his only outing on grass. On his preferred dirt, though, he went undefeated, posting odds-on Grade One victories in the Steven Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs (giving lumps of weight away all round, and chased home, ironically, by the Helen Pitts-trained Brazilian import ), the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (again). Overall, his record was good enough to see him voted Horse of the Year for a second time, making him only the fifth horse (after Secretariat, , and ) since the inauguration of the Eclipse Awards in 1971 to win that accolade two years running.

Curlin probably could have raced equally successfully as a five-year-old, but in the modern world it would have been unrealistic to have hoped for such an occurrence. Truth be told, we were blessed to hav been given the chance to enjoy his four-year-old season, as the easy way out for his connections would have been to have retired him to stud in 2008. (The composition of his connections, incidentally, had changed by this time, with Jackson and Bolton having bought Satish Sanan’s share, and the ownership of Midnight Cry Stables’ 20% interest being subject to a legal dispute as William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, who were in jail at the time, were being sued for $90 million by disgruntled former clients in a class-action compensation case). As it was, though, Curlin was campaigned thoroughly, facing the starter 16 times over his two seasons of racing (for 11 wins, two seconds, two thirds and one fourth, and over $10 million in earnings). In an era in which the conventional approach to preparing a horse for a lucrative stud career has sadly become to race him as unadventurously as possible, he stood out as a shining beacon of hope and glory.

Curlin took up residence at Lane’s End Farm at a fee of $75,000, covering his first mares in February 2009. As a wonderful horse, he had every right to become a wonderful stallion. As a big horse who had not himself raced as a juvenile, though, he probably didn’t have much right to sire precocious juveniles – which, of course, is seen by so many as the be-all-and-end-all. His stud fee was subject to the usual slight decline while he awaited his first runners – and when 2012 came and went with his first crop having yielded seemingly moderate results, the quidnuncs who dictate market trends straightaway decided that he wasn’t going to make the grade. Palace Malice had shown decent form as a juvenile (as had in Britain) and had finished third in the Grade Two Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs, but that wasn’t enough to prevent Curlin’s fee for 2013 being the eye-catchingly low figure of $25,000, a mere third of the figure at which it had started out.

Now, of course, the situation is very different. Not only have and won at Listed level, but more particularly Palace Malice, whose good runs this spring prior to his Belmont Stakes victory had included a Grade One second place in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, has now shown that we can indeed expect Curlin to establish himself among the higher echelons of the stallion ranks. As a horse who, although very good on all surfaces, was clearly at his best on dirt (and as a son of the outstanding dirt stallion , who has sired top turf runners including and who has had the odd good horse in Europe including the excellent stayer , but who is most notable for the great record of his progeny on dirt) Curlin is likely to continue to make his mark primarily as a sire of dirt runners. However, he is a mighty horse whose class is such that he will surely sire the winners of good races anywhere on any surface, if given the chance to do so.

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