09/24/2008 11:00PM

$10M just the latest high-water mark

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ARCADIA, Calif. - At a little before noon on Saturday, the best colt in America will be led to the Belmont Park detention facility to begin the prescribed six hours of relative isolation before defending his title in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

About that same time, by around 9 a.m. in California, the best filly in America will be found in a stall at Santa Anita Park, across town from her familiar surroundings at Hollywood Park, but nevertheless ready to run in the Lady's Secret Stakes at around 2:30 that afternoon.

If Curlin wins he will become the all-time leading money winner among American-based Thoroughbreds. If Zenyatta wins she will remain unbeaten in eight starts, dating back to her debut last November. If both of those achievements make you think of a particular horse, give yourself a you-know-what.

Cigar won 16 straight races between the fall of 1994 and the summer of 1996, and then ended his career with a narrow loss in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic at Woodbine, having amassed total earnings of $9,999,815. There were no gimmicks or bonuses to his bankroll, unless you want to count winning the first running of the Dubai World Cup, or perhaps the one and only running of the Citation Challenge at Arlington Park, where he carried 130 pounds against Honour and Glory, Unbridled's Song, and Dramatic Gold to win that 16th in a row.

Time passes, though, and now it is Curlin's turn to reach for that magical $10 million mark. Why is the number so magical? Well, the fortunate among us still have 10 fingers and 10 toes. The resulting decimal system continues to rely heavily on the number 10. There is David Letterman's nightly Top 10 List. And who can deny the impact of the number 10 after a certain movie made by California Horse Racing Commissioner Bo Derek?

Even Cigar's owner, Allen Paulson, felt a shiver of $10 million fever in the wake of the news that Cigar turned out to be sterile at stud. Paulson mused aloud that maybe he should send Cigar back to the races to bank another 185 bucks, just to top things off with a nice, round number. Everybody thought that Allen was a crack-up, except that Allen wasn't laughing. Cigar declined the offer.

In horse racing, the money list provides not much more than a snapshot of a given era, since the economic goalposts are always on the move. Purses for top horses are so huge these days that no one bats an eye at gross totals unless a horse like Curlin comes through with more than one quality season. But as long as the handsome red horse is about to make history, this might be a good time to bow in the general direction of those who came before.

In 1886, Miss Woodford became the first Thoroughbred to earn more than $100,000. In 1951, Citation became the first Thoroughbred to earn more than $1,000,000. So much for the decimal points.

Before Citation, an entertaining array of Hall of Famers laid claim to the money title, and their exploits were faithfully recorded by a zealous racing press. Zev preceded Gallant Fox. Gallant Fox was passed by Sun Beau, who was passed by Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit gave way to Whirlaway, and Whirlaway was followed by a thrilling 1947 season, during which the top spot changed hands five times before Stymie put Armed and Assault away for good.

Since Citation, only eight horses have been known as the all-time money leader. Nashua passed Citation in 1956. Round Table passed Nashua in 1958. Kelso passed Round Table in 1964 by winning his fifth straight Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Kelso's final total of $1,977,896 hung tough for 13 years. Among the champions who raced between 1966 and 1979 were Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Fort Marcy, Secretariat, and Forego, but they all fell shy. Seems like two million was just as tough then as 10 is today. When Affirmed came along to win the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup in the midst of his third championship campaign, his total reached $2,044,218, and Kelso stepped gracefully aside.

"I knew Affirmed would probably get the record," said the late Allaire duPont, Kelso's owner, when reached at her Maryland farm on the day after the record fell. "He is a marvelous horse, and it looked like he would have a pretty easy race in the Gold Cup."

In fact, he did not.

"Actually, we didn't hear about the result for a couple of days," she said. "It takes a while for news to reach us from California."

Sounds like heaven. Is there any way we can get news not to reach us quite so fast?

"I had no idea how long the record would last," duPont added. "Kelso did so many great things that will last."

Bear in mind that as she spoke Kelso was right outside in a field, probably within earshot, but duPont's sentiments remain sound. Affirmed was passed by Spectacular Bid and then John Henry, who set the bar at $6,591,860, and John Henry was passed by Aysheba as the Breeders' Cup era began to unfold. Cigar has enjoyed a 12-year run, nearly as long as Kelso's. But never mind the numbers. They all did so many great things that will last.