Sunday, July 13, 2008

Curlin's Man o' War

Sometimes you don't know how much you're pulling for a horse until he loses. That was the case yesterday for me as I watched Curlin come up short in his grass debut in the Man o' War (g.I). The race was of the kind that is difficult or impossible to handicap on paper. Red Rocks (*Ire) and Better Talk Now had, unquestionably, better proven form on the grass. But Better Talk Now is 9 and hasn't won a race in over a year and Red Rocks form has been spotty especially in stakes company. So one is almost forced to handicap heart. That's the one element you can't read (at least not easily) on paper; you need to know the horse. It's the attribute that we, more than any other, use to anthropomorphize our equine champions. What we imagine to be the core essence of overcoming great obstacles by humans we imagine to be the same in great horses. Heart is also the attribute that all racing fans are looking to discover in the eye of each horse every time we watch a new winner or an old warrior. Do they have that 'eye of the tiger'? We imagine we see heart in stretch duels with front legs extended further than seems possible and ears pinned, we saw the pure essence of it when Dr. Fager tried to savage In Reality. And we also imagine we see heart when a horse, after winning, comes trotting back on their toes ears flicking playfully forward. I saw heart in Curlin in his Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup and B.C. wins. And I saw heart in his Belmont loss to Rags To Riches.

We have high hopes for our champions. We want them to always prevail, if even by a breath. It seems to assure us everything is right in the world. We want our new champions to live in our minds as large as those of yore, maybe because it substantiates our own lives as much as theirs. Whatever the truth, I was rooting unconditionally for the great experiment of Curlin on the grass to go off without a hitch. Many of us already had him running and winning the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe! But yesterday the plan hit a snag. For a fleeting moment in mid-stretch it appeared that Curlin had a chance to catch Red Rocks but then he flattened out. He didn't show that quickening turn of foot that the great grass horses exhibit. In the end it looked as though the old champion, Better Talk Now, still retaining the remnants of that type of kick, was going to catch Curlin for second money. Disappointment washed over me like a bucket of cold water thrown over a horse. I felt it from head to toe, surprising myself. To be certain, Curlin did not run a Curlin type of race. Was it the turf?- or was it something else that we don't know about yet? Perhaps it was just an off day. He looked spectacular so I can't believe it was physical.

One race does not make a racehorse or undo his value. The bright side is that it was his very first attempt on the turf against very worthy, proven opponents and he did nothing to tarnish his legacy. At the moment no one knows if they will continue to point Curlin to the 'Arc but I think that if I were Jess Jackson I would start to reconsider other options again. Some of the horses he ran against yesterday are very good horses but not of the caliber he would meet up against in Europe. Considering that fact and the travel and getting used to new surroundings, yet again, it is an awful lot to expect. I applaud Jess Jackson for his vision and dream, he's the best part of racing this year. No matter what he decides I, for one, believe it will be in the best interest of the horse and his legacy, not necessarily Jess Jackson's.

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