Curlin faces stiff challenge
ARCADIA, Calif. - It will be Curlin vs. stars from Japan and Europe in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic that could decide Horse of the Year if Curlin successfully defends his title.
"It's a grand stage," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Curlin. "It's going to be extremely competitive and we have nothing but respect for all of the horses that are involved."
Next weekend's Classic attracted a full 14-horse field, including undefeated Casino Drive from Japan and European stars Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and Raven's Pass.
Asmussen will have three shots at winning for a second straight year with Curlin, Pyro, and Student Council.
Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel and Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien have two entries each. Frankel will start Champs Elysees and Mast Track, while O'Brien brings Duke of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator.
A record 180 horses, including seven former champions and a record 35 foreigners, were pre-entered yesterday in the 14 races worth $25.5 million over two days.
The Breeders' Cup will be run for the first time on Santa Anita's new synthetic surface, and steroids, which aren't allowed in Europe, will be banned for the first time in the 25-year-old event.
Eight of the 14 races were oversubscribed, so a selection system will be used to winnow the fields to 12 or 14 horses, depending on the race.
Breeders' Cup president Greg Avioli said choosing to run on a synthetic surface helped attract more foreign horses, as did more recruiting in Europe.
"The synthetic surface is key this year because it's expanded the number of races European horses would enter," said Alastair Donald, director of the International Racing Bureau. "There's a definite perception back in Europe that the steroid situation has been improved and we are competing on a level playing field."
Curlin will try to join Tiznow as the only back-to-back winners of the 1 1/4-mile race, and a victory would likely nab Horse of the Year honors again for the 4-year-old.
He won't take on Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, who suddenly retired earlier this week after being injured during a workout.
Final entries and the post-position draw are Tuesday.
Curlin is undefeated this year on dirt, including wins in the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster, Woodward, and
Among Curlin's 13 challengers in the Classic is 3-year-old Casino Drive, who is undefeated in three starts and missed the Belmont Stakes because of a hoof injury; Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John; and Pacific Classic winner Go Between.
"He's very happy and seems to love the new surface at Santa Anita," said Eoin Harty, who trains Colonel John. "I expect him to run accordingly."
O'Brien has pre-entered 10 horses in this year's event, including Henrythenavigator, winner of four races this year in England and Ireland; and Duke of Marmalade from Ireland, who won five consecutive Group 1 races in Europe this year.
Frankel has 11 horses pre-entered, including Mast Track in the Classic. Locally based trainer John Sadler has nine entries. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has two runners after not participating last year, and Bob Baffert has two.
Baffert said yesterday that his third horse, Del Conte, was out of the Juvenile Turf because of a front ankle injury.
Raven's Pass from Britain, owned by Princess Haya of Jordan, defeated Henrythenavigator in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in his most recent start.
Besides Curlin in the Classic, other defending or former champions entered were: Midnight Lute (2007 Sprint); Kip Deville (2007 Mile); Indian Blessing (2007 Juvenile Fillies); Ginger Punch (2007 Ladies' Classic); Better Talk Now (2004 Turf); and Red Rocks (2006 Turf).
For the first time, next Friday's five Breeders' Cup races will showcase all female horses, led by undefeated Zenyatta in the $2 million renamed Ladies' Classic.