11/18/2008 6:16PM

Considering Curlin


Curlinstall I keep sitting down to write something about Curlin but there are still so many moving parts to his story that's it's difficult to know precisely where he stands and what to say.

He's as retired as a horse who's not officially retired can be. Jess Jackson, who owns 80 percent of him, put out an oddly-timed press release Saturday night saying that the colt would be retired to stud next year, as expected, but Jackson also deliberately rasied the tantalizing possibility of one final start before that. But where? Jackson has ruled out the Japan Cup Dirt because of quarantine issues and, through trainer Steve Asmussen, also nixed the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs Nov. 29 due to its mere Grade 2 status and $400,000 purse. The only remaining Grade 1 race for him on the calendar is the $300k Cigar Mile at Aqueduct the same day, but nominations closed Nov. 15 and Curlin was not among them.

It seems likelier he'll be paraded for the fans on Clark Day and then sent to a Kentucky breeding farm than that he'll face the starter again.

Meanwhile, Jackson's representatives were in a Frankfort, Ky. courtroom Monday making an unusual argument on behalf of a horse owner -- that his prize runner is worth less than people may think. Jackson is trying to buy out the remaining 20 percent of Curlin and thinks the fair value is $4 million, as opposed to the at least $6 milliion the share was valued at this summer and perhaps as much as $10 million at the end of last year.

Funny how those valuations change depending on whether you're buying or selling. It was only a few months ago that the owners of Big Brown, a far less accomplished racehorse and one with an arguably less attractive pedigree, was being widely labelled as a stallion worth $50 million. Big Brown, like the other horses of the last decade who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown and not much else -- Charismatic, Funny Cide, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones -- is unlikely ever to be voted into the Hall of Fame. Curlin is a first-ballot cinch for 2014.

Curlin broke Cigar's record for earnings by an American-based horse, he won a Breeders' Cup Classic, two Jockey Club Gold Cups,a Dubai World Cup, a Preakness and at least one Horse of the Year title (two if justice prevails in January.) Yet without a Triple Crown bid, or a lengthy unbeaten streak like Cigar's, Curlin never quite captured the public imagination. That may say as much about racing's diminished profile as it does about Curlin or sports fans, but I don't think it's fair to say "Racing Failed to Promote Curlin" as one website headline alleges. The New York Racing Association poured unprecedented single-horse promotional efforts into Curlin's appearances in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, but there just wasn't a strong enough hook to move the attendance or coverage needles.

Curlin undertook as ambitious a campaign as a 4-year-old can these days -- an ad-hoc quintet of the World Cup, Foster, Woodward, Gold Cup, and Classic -- but that's just not an organized or recognized series that resonates beyond the sport's existing fans. Maybe there's no way to make a top older horse a household name, and I'm unconvinced that this is a particularly pressing problem for racing or that solving it would significantly buoy the game.

Sportswriters spend a lot of time lamenting the early retirement of racehorses and blaming racing's ills on this phenomenon. Sure, it's disappointing for us existing fans, but how exactly did Curlin's staying in training as a 4-year-old attract new fans or raise the sport's profile?