Curlin - Probable Kentucky Derby Favorite
by Trevor Whenham - 04/19/2007
I love horse racing more than just about anything, and the Kentucky is the best part of horse racing. That being said, the race often makes my head hurt. Twenty horses with vastly different backgrounds running a new distance on a track that is new to most of them in front of a small city worth of people makes any attempt at handicapping a huge challenge. At best. This year is setting up to be more puzzling and confounding than any in recent memory, and that's all the fault of one horse - Arkansas Derby winner Curlin.
If you watched Curlin's last prep, or you've seen the replay, then you understand the mind-numbing potential that his horse has. He settled off the pace at Oaklawn and patiently waited for the stretch drive. Somewhere on the last turn the wait was over and Curlin exploded. He moved to the front without effort, Robby Albarado used the whip once to justify his position on a horse that needed no help and the race may as well have been over right then. Curlin gained ground with every stride and won by 10 1/2 lengths, and he's won his three races this year by more than 28 combined lengths. Amazing. Trainer Steve Asmussen put it best when asked how the horse made it look so easy - "He is just faster than everybody else."
With a resume like that and a field of competitors that have largely failed to distinguish themselves this spring, it's not surprising that Curlin has been installed as the early favorite in the Derby after the third and final Derby future pool closed. The stunning power that he has displayed in his brief career makes him a very tempting choice as well. It's not that simple, though. Curlin has a lot stacked against him, and there are a whole lot of factors that need to be considered before you can reasonably decide whether to bet on Curlin or to move to a horse at a longer price.
The biggest knock against Curlin is his experience, or rather his shocking lack of it. The horse broke his maiden in his first try, but that was only on Feb. 3. It was an impressive way to announce his arrival - he cruised to a win by 12 3/4 lengths. After a six-week break that included a change in ownership and a move to Asmussen's barn, Curlin entered his first Derby prep, the Rebel Stakes. He won that by more than five lengths, and headed to the Arkansas Derby. Three races is not a typical career for a Derby winner.
The overused stat of the last week is that no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without racing at two. Just 40 horses have tried to win the race only four months into their career since 1955, and Strodes Creek, who finished second to Go for Gin in 1994, boasts the best showing from that group. Before that, Coaltown, the Hall of Famer that had the misfortune to be in the same Derby class as the great Citation in 1948, came the closest to winning when he was clearly second best. Curlin has a fairly significant trend to overcome if he wants to wear the roses.
There's a risk with thinking that compelling trends like this can never be overcome. It had been 50 years before last year since any horse had successfully won the Derby while using the Florida Derby as his final prep. Barbaro made it look easy despite the long layoff, though, and this year some top horses are coming into the Derby from that race, or off of even longer breaks. What I'm saying is that it would only take a win by Curlin for the two-year old rule, currently gospel among handicappers and connections, to be totally rethought.
His inexperience creates another problem. Regret in 1915 is the last Derby champ to win off of just three lifetime starts. This is more concerning to me than the lack of races at two. Curlin obviously doesn't lack the skills or the confidence a Derby winner needs, but his lack of experience means he just hasn't seen as much as most of the other horses have. He hasn't had to overcome any serious adversity and he hasn't dealt with large crowded fields. He's got exactly the races he has needed, and he hasn't had to learn how to cope when he doesn't. That's a problem.
A third knock is that he hasn't yet run against top competition. Todd Pletcher's Deadly Dealer was the top challenger in the Arkansas Derby, and he isn't even good enough to be among the five horses Pletcher will send to Kentucky. Teuflesberg is heading to Kentucky from the Rebel, but he hardly appears to be an elite talent. Curlin has soundly beaten every horse he has seen without challenge, but critics argue that that would be more impressive if he'd faced anyone notable.
That's a lot for Curlin to overcome, but you can't just reject him. Though he hasn't run against anyone, one could argue that few horses have this year. Every time we thought a horse was emerging from the crowd he seemed to come back and disappoint next time out. It's possible that we don't need to be concerned that Curlin hasn't beaten anyone elite because there really aren't many elite horses in this field.
That opinion can be reinforced by a look at the Beyer's that these horses have posted. The 100 earned by Tiago in the Santa Anita Derby stands out among the big prep races, and the horse needed an absolutely perfect trip to post it. None of the other big names in the field put up a 100+ in their last preps, and most of them haven't had one at any point in their career. That's incomprehensible at this point in the season, and a sign of how average this class may be. Curlin, by contrast, has gone over 100 twice in his three races, including a 103 in Arkansas. At the very least, Curlin has shown he has the ability to be competitive.
What does it all mean? Is he worth a bet? It's hard to tell. It will depend upon his eventual price, his post position and a hundred different factors, and it will also come down to what you believe and how you see the race playing out. I know one thing, though - some of my money will be on him. I'm a sucker for races like this horse runs, which is why I lost my money at the Breeders' Cup on Bernardini.