07/11/2008 11:14AM

Root For, Bet Against


As you can see from the crowded lineup below, Saturday is a feast of interesting racing even beyond Curlin's turf debut in the Man o' War at Belmont, with the Summit of Speed at Calder, the Million Day Preview at Arlington, the Delaware Oaks card and the return of Colonel John in the Swaps at Hollywood:

I'll post some thoughts on the races late tonight or in the morning after travelling to Chicago, where (plug alert!) Mike Watchmaker and I will be doing a seminar and book (Bet With The Best 2) signing from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in the Starting Gate Theatre at Arlington.

As for Curlin, my impulse is to root for and bet against. It's great that he's still in training (though regrettable that this is such an upset we need to applaud it) and it's been a long time since a champion was campaigned creatively rather than cautiously (though regrettable that this was occasioned in large part by the selection of a synthetic surface for this year's Breeders' Cup Classic.) If Curlin proves to be as good on grass as on dirt and makes a run at the Arc de Triomphe, it will be a bold and historic bid.

Handicappers know that's huge if, though. He worked well enough on the Churchill Downs course and he's got an adequate pedigree for it (Smart Strike out of a Deputy Minister mare) but it's rare for a dominant dirt horse to be as good on the turf. Nor is this a collection of slouches that has been rounded up to flatter Curlin: Four of his six opponents are Grade 1 or Group 1 winners, including BC Turf winners Better Talk Now and Red Rocks. While none of them is in world-class form these days, they're a sufficiently salty group that a) beating them would be a real achievement and b)Curlin may be an underlay at odds-on.

---Neat historical nugget from DRF Senior Editor Irwin Cohen: "Secretariat also made his turf debut in the Man o' War and finished out his career on grass outside of the country - karma or coincidence...

"The Man o' War was my first and only up-close look at Secretariat as a racehorse...I remember leaning over the rail by the paddock and watching him come out of the tunnel. His chest with rippling and his walk was pure swagger. He ran against Tentam, who was this little thing but had won the UN by five and was at the time clearly the best grass horse in the country. I think Secretariat had a bullet five-eighths in 57 and 4 on the turf, but I was a contrarian even at 18 and I made my big bet -- $5 - on Tentam. Tentam made two runs and I thought the second time, on the far turn, he was going to go right by, but the big fella just shooed him away like a buzzing gnat and won easy without ever getting out of a gallop. Just awesome."

---There are a number of fascinating issues surrounding Curlin's 2008 campaign but steroids is not one of them. Solely because of a completely different sort of use of steroids in baseball, steroids has become the mainstream media's current obsession in racing, overshadowing more important and legitimate medication issues in racing and creating the false impression that this is a new factor in handicapping. Irresponsible speculation that going "off" steroids somehow caused Big Brown to lose the Triple Crown, while not supported by a shred of evidence or common sense, has already prompted similar talk about Curlin -- who, like many if not most champion racehorses of the past 20 years, has been treated, completely legally, with steroids during his career.

Curlin reportedly stopped getting steroids at the end of last year, and it has made absolutely no difference in his performances as a 4-year-old. Racing in Dubai, where steroids are banned, he won the Jaguar Cup and Dubai World Cup, and then returned here to win the Foster without them.

--There's a nicely-written article about racing in Mongolia in today's New York Times. Betcha didn't know that Mongolians call horse racing one of "the three manly sports" along with wrestling and archery, or that:

"Until the 20th century, horses were in the blood of all Mongolians. Their language has more than 70 words to describe the animals’ coloring. When a great horse dies, its skull is placed atop a cairn on a mountain, and Mongolians make offerings there."