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BC Journal: Day in the life of Curlin
Marcus Hersh, Oct. 20:
ARCADIA, Calif. - At 8 o'clock Monday morning, 17 members of the press formed a semi-circle around trainer Steve Asmussen just outside Barn 27 on the Santa Anita backstretch. Curlin had just worked a half-mile, and the questions were flying fast and furious. But 15 feet away, hidden from the throng in the barn's wash stall, it was business as usual for Curlin. A hotwalker gently scratched his foretop as groom Felix Gutierrez scrubbed Curlin's lower legs with a bar of soap.
"What we've tried to do is keep everything the same with him, no matter where he is," assistant trainer Scott Blasi had said earlier in the morning.
Well, I staggered out of bed a little after 4 on Monday morning to get a look at how one of Curlin's days unfolds.
5:00 a.m. - I thought I might beat Blasi to the barn, but no dice. He already had tied Curlin to the back of his stall and started the day's preparations. Breakfast for Curlin had been served at 3:30 by a stable hand. Another meal would come at 11 a.m., with Curlin's final tub of oats served at 4 p.m. Blasi walked out of the stall and called me over.
"Look at this," he said, gesturing proudly to the empty blue feed tub in his hand. "This is how you know one is doing good."
Then, Blasi pointed to Curlin's back, the hind end of which was coated with manure. "And see, that means he's sleeping really good," Blasi said.
Carlos Rosas, Curlin's exercise rider, came down the shed row. "You should have seen him in Dubai," Rosas said. "He was covered in it.
"Yesterday," Rosas continued, "he was having this big dream. He was stretched all the way out in his stall, his legs were twitching."
Abe Marler used to work for owner Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Farm in Kentucky, but he signed up for the traveling gig with Curlin, and was with him all summer in New York. Former military, Marler refers to his job as his "detail." He spends the night reading, browsing on a laptop, and getting up to check on one of the best racehorses in years.
"He sleeps," Marler said. "Sometimes he's up, sometimes he's down."
5:40 - Rosas assembled the tack Curlin would wear for his final Breeders' Cup work later in the morning. Curlin gallops in rings, which help his rider exert more force on the reins and thus exercise greater control, but the rings come off when Curlin works.
"He's strong going to the pole, but then he totally relaxes," Rosas said.
Five minutes later, Blasi had gone into Curlin's stall and covered him with a bright yellow electric blanket, called a Thermotex. A mild electric current runs through the blanket, soothing any niggling aches Curlin might have.
"C'mon, c'mon, don't bite," Blasi said, as Curlin - still tied to the back of his stall - bent his neck for an exploratory nip.
Twenty minutes later, Blasi was back in Curlin's stall after tacking Pyro up for his breeze. Curlin had been staring intently out his window for several minutes now. "He loves looking out the window," Blasi said. "That's why he loved Saratoga so much. His window looked out on the training track; that would've scared a lot of horses, but he ate it up."
Blasi carefully wound elastic vet wrap around Curlin's front legs, then wrapped his hind legs in ace bandages. This typically is groom's work, but Curlin is no typical horse.
"I always put his bandages on before he works," said Blasi. "I can do anything in this barn if I have to. How are you going to tell other people what to do if you can't do it yourself?"
6:30 - Groom Felix Gutierrez moves around Curlin like an extension of the horse's own body. He slides behind him, shaking straw out of his tail, and he ducks all the way underneath Curlin as he straps on the girth to hold Curlin's saddle in place. Curlin lifts the appropriate hoof to let Gutierrez pick his feet. Gutierrez unties him from the wall, turns the horse's head to the front of the stall, and affixes Curlin's tongue tie, wrapping a piece of cloth in a loop around the tongue before tying it to Curlin's lower jaw. Two stalls down, J Be K noisily bounces his hay ball against the wall.
Sometimes, during all the handling, Curlin nods his head in mild protest, but he assents to all necessary activity. Just like in his races - the consummate professional.
Suddenly, Asmussen enters the barn. Curlin is led out, Rosas mounts up, and they are off to the racetrack, with Blasi accompanying on the massive stable pony named Pancho.
7:15 - After Curlin's work, before the real press of media comes, Asmussen was all smiles. "Did he look just amazing galloping out?" Asmussen said. Curlin was being walked around an oval path outside the barn entrance, stopping for a drink out of a water bucket balanced on a feed tub as Asmussen looked on admiringly. Curlin could not look better, his coat gleaming, his muscles rippling.
"Ten million dollars later, to still be acting like this?" Asmussen said. "Come on."
8:00 - That's it - back to the stall. Curlin will be walked around the barn at about 3:30 this afternoon, but until then, the stall is his spot. Gutierrez has bathed Curlin and scraped the water from his coat, and the colt has been walked until dry. Amy Kearns, another Jackson employee, affixed to Curlin's legs a Game-Ready device, which circulates ice-cold water through boots. Icing legs is as old as the sport, but with this machine, water never touches the animal, and the operator controls the temperature and pressure. After the icing ends, Curlin will lie down and fall into a deep sleep. When he wakes up, Gutierrez will put on his stall bandages, and then take some time off.
In 11 years working for Asmussen, Gutierrez has seen all kinds of equine personalities. Curlin, the one-in-a-million talent, is one of the easy ones.
"He's a good boy," Gutierrez said.
Pretty good, indeed.
Jay Hovdey, Oct. 20:
ARCADIA, Calif. - You know the day could go okay when the first horse you see walking through the stable gate is Midnight Lute. What a sight. A real Hummer of a racehorse. And it doesn't matter one bit that it's been 51 weeks since he last won a race. He is still the champ, the winner of the 2007 Breeders' Cup Sprint, and he's acting like he wants to do it again.
The Bob Baffert crew has done a grand job getting the big guy ready to defend his title on Saturday, especially after he sustained a nasty cut coming out of the gate at Del Mar in the Pat O'Brien Handicap. At a little past 8 o'clock Monday morning, as Midnight Lute prepared to head to the track for a half-mile breeze, assistant trainer Jim Barnes described the healed cut as a "non-issue" at this point. The real drama will be getting the big train cleanly away from the station.
"Once he's in the gate, he's so big they have a hard time moving him around," Barnes said. "He's so long that when they've got his nose in the 'V' his butt is squeezing out over the end. He was really fired up that day at Del Mar, ready to run. But then once he grabbed himself, he got in a bad spot with nowhere to run, and it was pretty much over." . . .
Janelle Gruss worked Midnight Lute for Baffert on Monday instead of retired jockey Joe Steiner, who had a pretty good excuse. Steiner was attached Oct. 5 when Lute fired off three-quarters in 1:10.60, then again on Oct. 13 when the champ went five-eighths in 56.80. Two days later, Steiner was dumped near the finish line while galloping a filly for Richard Mandella and dislocated his left elbow.
"She was looking around and then propped and wheeled on me when she saw those Breeders' Cup signs they'd just put along the inside rail," Steiner said. "I just came down wrong. My arm was dangling, kind of felt like it wasn't mine. I went ahead and yanked it back into place myself."
Showoff. Steiner said he would be allowed to flex the elbow this week and start doing some light rehab. Among the other Breeders' Cup horses he'd been working for Baffert were Indian Blessing and Midshipman, and he'd been getting on BC Turf Sprint starter One Union for Mandella.
The filly who sent Steiner to earth was an unstarted daughter of Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the 2003 BC Classic at Santa Anita. With all six of Mandella's BC wins here, it is fair to assume that the Breeders' Cup comes to Santa Anita just for his benefit.
"Not this time," Mandella said, sobered by the fact that he's got just two longshots to run on Saturday. "I'm prepping for next year." . . .
Tout of the Day: Gary Stevens was having a quiet moment on the grandstand terraces, getting ready to go on the air for HRTV, when he was asked if he'd been getting on any Breeders' Cup runners while he prepared for his appearance in the Legends of Racing event for retired Hall of Famers at Santa Anita last Saturday.
"I've been on that colt Gallant Son from Emerald Downs for Frank Lucarelli," said Stevens, who made his first big splash at the old Longacres in Seattle. "No question . . . he can run. Frank and I are about the same age. He's known me since I was 18, and I rode a bunch of winners for him."
In the wake of the Legends race, rumors bubbled that Stevens was so inspired by the experience he was hustling Breeders' Cup mounts.
"I wish I'd felt that good the last year I was riding," Stevens said. "But that night my knee started getting bigger and bigger. I turned to say something to my brother and all of a sudden - eeyahhh! - like someone stuck it with a knife. 'Now I remember. That's why I'm not doing this anymore.' " . . .
Barnes is noble. Huey Barnes, that is. Just ask anyone who's known him these past 40 years or so, since he came west with the Charlie Whittingham stable from New York. Barnes has been on the gate crew in California now for 31 years. He's got the busted 10 fingers and thumbs to prove it, and he's back for another West Coast Breeders' Cup.
You'll find Barnes at the training gate in the quarter-mile chute every morning, alongside Hector Ramirez and Matt Carava. Only when asked will they compare war wounds.
"When I get home after the races, my son always wants me to take my shirt off so he can find new bruises," said Ramirez.
With horses coming from all over the racing world, the Breeders' Cup offers a unique mix of demands for the starters, both in the morning and afternoon.
"Actually, it can be better for us," Ramirez said. "It's a better class of horses, and people seem to spend more time with them."
"With the French horses, you will find maybe one out of every three or four who don't want to go in," Barnes said. "Then all you got to do is put a blindfold on them, turn 'em one time and they go right in. I'll tell you one thing, though. If you try to get back there to try and pack one in, he'll nail you quick and never look at you."
"They've requested a blanket for one of Michael Stoute's horses," Carava said. "But we use those portable pads now. And Sir Michael Stoute will get to meet Lord Huey Barnes."