10/02/2007 12:00AM

BC Classic: One race for two titles

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
After defeating Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Cup Gold Cup, Curlin (left) will move on to the Breeders+ Cup Classic, which could decide both champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.
The strength of this year's crop of 3-year-olds was underscored further over the weekend, when Curlin, Hard Spun, and Tiago all scored victories against older horses in major prep races for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27 at Monmouth Park. Combined with the victory the previous weekend by Any Given Saturday against older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap, as well as strong, though losing efforts this past weekend by Street Sense and the older horse Lawyer Ron, the 1 1/4-mile Classic is shaping up as a race that could decide Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old.

Curlin and Hard Spun were the only two horses to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year, and both served notice that they are back and better than ever heading into the Classic.

Curlin wore down Lawyer Ron to capture the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sunday at Belmont Park while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 114. Hard Spun repulsed a bid from Street Sense and went on to take the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park on Saturday. He got a Beyer Figure of 109.

Also Saturday, Tiago, making his first start against older horses, outfought Awesome Gem and got a Beyer Figure of 106 in the Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, while Student Council won the Hawthorne Gold Cup to earn a Beyer Figure of 97.

The trainers of Awesome Gem, Curlin, Hard Spun, Lawyer Ron, Street Sense, and Student Council all reported Monday that their horses came out of their races well.

A maximum of 14 horses can run in the Classic. Curlin (Jockey Club Gold Cup), Lawyer Ron (Whitney Handicap), Student Council (Pacific Classic), and Tiago (Goodwood) all have automatic berths into the race through the Breeders' Cup's "Win and You're In" program.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Curlin, said the weekend's results "validated the form the 3-year-olds have had all year. This is a very special group of horses," Asmussen said.

Curlin, obviously, is among that special group. Consider that since winning first time out against maidens in February, he was immediately thrust into stakes competition, ran third in the Kentucky Derby in only his fourth lifetime start, won the Preakness against Derby winner Street Sense in his fifth start, was narrowly defeated in the Belmont Stakes at the end of a grueling Triple Crown campaign, and now has come back in the fall to defeat the best older horse in training in Lawyer Ron.

Curlin was sent on Monday from Belmont Park to Keeneland, where he will do his serious training in preparation for the Classic. Asmussen said Curlin will not head to Monmouth until Oct. 23. Although he has been remarkably consistent, Curlin's worst performance this year came at Monmouth in the Haskell, in which he was third to Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun.

"Obviously he struggled in that race and was jumping up and down," Asmussen said. "It was not his best race. But the Breeders' Cup is at Monmouth, so it's something we're going to have to deal with."

Asmussen said that favoritism in the Classic "could go five different ways, depending on which way the wind blows."

Asmussen is also the trainer of Student Council, whom he said also will train at Keeneland over the next few weeks before his status for the Classic is determined. Asmussen said he had yet to confer with owner Ro Parra and Parra's adviser, Thoro-Graph's Jerry Brown, about anything specific to the Breeders' Cup.

Lawyer Ron was "just a touch too keen early on" in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher.

"That's something we've been working on and will continue to work on," Pletcher said from his barn at Belmont Park. "Hopefully he'll be less on edge."

Pletcher said he would train Lawyer Ron a little harder going into the Classic, and said he and jockey John Velazquez believe it might be best to let Lawyer Ron roll early, rather than try and ration his speed.

"There's a fine line between slowing him down and getting him to relax," Pletcher said. "We've talked about maybe doing it a little different."

Pletcher said Lawyer Ron and Any Given Saturday would have their final workouts at Belmont and not go to Monmouth until Oct. 23.

Hard Spun used his speed to score a front-running victory in the Kentucky Cup Classic. His trainer, Larry Jones, said both he and Hard Spun were en route on Monday to Delaware Park, where Hard Spun will do his serious training for the Classic. As with Asmussen and Pletcher, Jones said he does not think he will bring Hard Spun to Monmouth until the Tuesday of Breeders' Cup week.

"I'd just like to gallop him about three days over that track," Jones said. "He'll do his major work at Delaware. I think that track takes a little more out of him than Monmouth."

Hard Spun has had a terrific, versatile campaign. He was fast enough to win the King's Bishop Stakes at seven furlongs, was second in the Derby to Street Sense, and beat Street Sense on Saturday.

"I'm very proud of the horse," Jones said. "Ninety-five percent of horses could not do what we've done with him, and I wouldn't do it with every cotton-pickin' horse. He makes me look good whatever we do. There's not many as good or as versatile as him, and he's as game as they come."

Street Sense lost for the first time in three meetings with Hard Spun, but trainer Carl Nafzger was satisfied with the effort put in by Street Sense in a race where the pace was not in his favor.

"He got everything he needed to out of the race except the win," Nafzger said from Kentucky. "It looks like the Breeders' Cup is going to be a lot of fun. I'm really excited about it. I don't know who you'd pick as the favorite."

Nafzger said Street Sense would train the next three weeks at Churchill Downs, then ship to Monmouth in time to have his final workout there the week of the Classic.

Nafzger was one of the first to speculate at the beginning of the year that this group of 3-year-olds was a cut above the norm, and nothing over the weekend dissuaded him from that opinion.

"Curlin ran a hell of a race," Nafzger said. "Tiago won out there. Hard Spun, he's as hickory as they come. This is a really classy bunch of 3-year-olds."