09/18/2008 11:00PM

Big Brown-Curlin showdown a must-see


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Jess Jackson, majority owner of the 2007 Horse of the Year, Curlin, wants that chestnut son of Smart Strike to accomplish something that has not been done before. Despite a game exercise against previous Breeders' Cup Turf winners Red Rocks (2006) and Better Talk Now (2004) in the Man o' War Stakes, Curlin ran second and will not tackle the Breeders' Cup Classic-Arc de Triomphe double.

But how about something that has not been accomplished in 29 years?

No, I am not referring to the Triple Crown: It was 29 years ago in 1979 that Triple Crown winner Affirmed repeated as Horse of the Year at age 4. And since then, no other Horse of the Year at 3 has repeated the next year.

In fact, since champions were first officially designated in 1936, there have been nine multiple Horses of the Year: Challedon (1939-40), Whirlaway (1941-42), Native Dancer (1952 and 1954), Kelso (1960-64), Secretariat (1972-73), Forego (1975-76), Affirmed (1978-79), John Henry (1981 and 1984), and Cigar (1995-96).

There have been eight Triple Crown winners in the same period of time (since 1936): War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978). The Triple Crown obviously carries more prestige, but winning Horse of the Year more than once is almost as rare a feat.

Only four of those multiple Horses of the Year did so at age 3 and 4: Challedon, Whirlaway, Kelso, and Affirmed. Earning Horse of the Year at both 3 and 4 is about twice as rare as winning the Triple Crown.

Now Curlin is poised to join that august group.

Obviously, the most certain way to win Horse of the Year is to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic and to beat everything that shows up. Conversely, the easiest way to lose Horse of the Year is to skip the Classic and allow Big Brown to win it.

Curlin has not been declared a probable starter for the Classic, and without Curlin in the race, Big Brown would likely be a heavy favorite to succeed.

For anyone thinking that Curlin already has sewn up Horse of the Year, that might be a very big mistake, especially if Big Brown wins the Classic, because Eclipse Award voters historically have placed uncommon emphasis on the winners of the Breeders' Cup events when voting for annual champions.

Perhaps, an error even more grave would be in assuming that Big Brown might lose the Classic, even in Curlin's absence, considering the non-traditional preparation that Big Brown has had since the Belmont.

Apart from the politics and strategy of running in the Classic or not, Curlin's participation would be very good for the industry overall by generating immense interest in a Classic match between the two high-class horses.

It could be a terrific horse race, and racing fans and chroniclers from around the world would watch with fascination. But the biggest benefit of both colts running in the Classic would be to educate the general public.

Let's face it. So far as the general public knows, the Triple Crown is horse racing. In terms of the general public perception, nothing else matters.

The public needs to be educated that the Triple Crown should be the beginning of an ascendance to greatness, not the end of that process. A definitive race between Curlin and Big Brown in the Classic is the best vehicle available to make this point, despite the fact that neither won the Triple Crown.

And by every measure, winning the Triple Crown is a big deal. It's harder than winning the Super Bowl or the World Series. There's a winner for those events every year.

Winning the Triple Crown takes a horse with such immense ability that his effort transcends sport, and his successes bring a public notoriety that makes him a household word.

Big Brown flirted with such greatness after victories in the Derby and Preakness, but in terms of beaten lengths, Curlin actually came closer to winning the Triple Crown last year, when he ran third in the Derby by eight lengths and second in the Belmont by a head.

In recognition of classic winners' elite status, stud farms fall all over themselves in their eagerness to throw heady sums at presumptive Triple Crown winners, and both Big Brown and Curlin will stand for massive fees when they go to stud. And breeders pay such high fees because they want to breed to the very best athletes in hopes of producing more of the same.

As a result, breeders deserve to know which one is the better horse, and there's only one way to prove that - on the racetrack.

For the benefit of the public, the sport, the breed, apple pie, and the American way, the owners of Curlin and Big Brown need to make the right decision, run in the Classic, and reap the rewards.

May the best horse win.