We're taking a brief digression from fantasy baseball and diamond-related activities to take a look at this Saturday's Man O'War Stakes at Belmont Park, possibly the most fascinating race of this decade. Named after arguably the greatest horse ever (the argument is between him, Secretariat and Citation), it's a 1 3/8 mile race on the grass, which is a little weird because Man O'War never ran on the grass. The race has traditionally been run in September, during Belmont's first week after the Saratoga meet, but it was shifted to July this year to allow better spacing in the New York distance turf calendar, as the race had come up a little light in quality in recent years. And the decision to move it is paying off in spades: this year's field includes the winner of last year's Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders Cup Classic and this year's Dubai World Cup: Curlin.
Yes, all four of those races were on the dirt, and Curlin's never run on the turf before. Which is what makes the race so interesting: how is Curlin going to adapt to a new surface? Some horses like Lava Man, Barbaro and Giant's Causeway had success on both surfaces. Those are the exceptions though. Most horses have a distinct preference for either dirt or turf. But the owners and trainer of Curlin (except for the two people rotting in jail) have decided that he's already accomplished plenty on the dirt (which is true). As he's out of Smart Strike, a very good turf sire (his progeny include last year's Breeders Cup Turf winner English Channel), he has the breeding that suggests an affinity for the grass. So why not take a shot?
The plan is if he does well on Saturday, they'll ship him to France, where he'll train, run in a minor prep race in September, and go in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the biggest turf race in the States and Europe. This isn't exactly unprecedented, but it's rare for US horses to even try the Arc; it hasn't happened in over a dozen years. Winning the Arc, in addition to winning the BC Classic and Dubai World Cup, would not only stamp him as probably the best horse in the world, it woudl put him in exalted historical company. And if he loses, so what? He can return to dirt racing and thump a hideous group of older males and 3 year old colts and break Cigar's record for career earnings. It's truly something of a free roll for the horse and his connections.
So can he do it? Let's do a breakdown of the field horse by horse:
1. Better Talk Now: The venerable nine (9!) year old gelding was the shocking winner of the 2004 Breeders Cup Turf at 27-1, and has had a pretty nice career all things considered. He's won a few G1's, ran second in the '06 Turf to Red Rocks (also in this race), and while his trip to Dubai this year was a huge disappointment, he bounced back with a very good 5th in the Manhattan, where traffic trouble kept him from a better slot. He also gets the added bonus of being owned by a group of regular guys who call themselves Bushwood Stables, and you can't root too hard against a Caddyshack reference. The problem here isn't his age or talent, it's that he's a dead closer in a race bereft of a lot of pace. Definite threat, but has some issues to contend with, especially given that he'll be around 3-1.
2. Grand Couturier: This guy's the lite version of Better Talk Now; he won last year's Sword Dancer at 16-1 by closing faster than all the others, but will be even further back in this race than BTN. Couple that with the fact that he's basically run one really strong race in his life (when he caught English Channel on an off day), and it's tough to make a case for him in the win slot.
3. Mission Approved: The New York-bred's only graded stakes win was stealing the Saranac at 34-1 on the front end in Saratoga last summer. There's not a ton of other speed in the race, and lone speed is dangerous in theory, but it's still tough to see him getting loose on the lead with enough left to hold off the top-quality horses. Disapprove.
4. True Cause: This Godolphin steed has all the looks of a hard-knocking bridesmaid, what with solid 2nds but no wins in a slew of turf routes. Indeed, at all three starts at this distance, he's finished second. Tough to argue that he'll all of a sudden jump up and beat multiple Grade 1 winners, though not the dumbest horse to include to round out your trifectas.
5. Sudan: Probably the best bred horse in the field, he won a Grade 1 last year...in Italy. He followed that up with a 10th place finish in a G3 in Sweden (I'm serious), and skipped home to an easy front-running victory in his last against lighter company in NoCal. He's actually not the worst idea for an upset play, as he'll probably run 2nd in the early going, is well-bred, took on some tough customers in Europe (ran okay against Red Rocks; lost thrice to 2006 Arc winner Rail Link), and his trainer, Bobby Frankel, has a nice rate of success on shippers. Live longshot.
6. Red Rocks: The 2006 BC Turf winner ships over from Europe for this race, and adds blinkers. It's a bit of an odd move to begin with, as while this is a Grade 1 win, what's the upside for him winning this race? My guess is that trainer Brian Meehan, who's not bad, is using this as a prep for next month's Arlington Million, a more prestigious race at Arlington Park. While this guy has been fairly okay in his two turf tries in the States, he's not a top-shelf turf horse in Europe as evidenced by his 6th place finish in the Coronation Cup last month. Still, even that race may have had its excuses: he had a tough trip, the 2nd and 3rd place finishers already came back to win, and Solider of Fortune, the winner, would be 3-5 in this race.
7. Curlin: 3-for-3 this year and winner of 5 straight, he's bred well for the turf and doesn't seem to have any distance issues, as he's won repatedly at 10 furlongs and was a good 2nd in the Belmont last year. But how's that going to translate to the turf? A lot of people don't love the fact that he's a larger colt, as they feel turf races, which are "one-run" in nature, lend themselves to smaller horses. Maybe. He's also not a horse with explosive closing speed that you see in a lot of turf horses (like Better Talk Now), he's more of a long-stretching grinder with a ton of speed. I expect that he'll try to make the lead at some point in this race (he may actually try to track the early runners pretty closely, given the lack of pace); it's a question of whether or not he can hold off the closers.
While I expect Curlin to run well on Saturday, Red Rocks is in pretty good form and even if he's using this as a prep race for the Million, he should be able to win the race on class and experience. This doesn't mean that Curlin's turf experiment will be over--a good loss will still keep him on the path to the Arc. But for his first turf start, I think he's going to have a tough time beating a fairly fit turf specialist in Red Rocks.
Good luck and enjoy the race!