05/25/2007 12:00AM

Blemish made Curlin a yearling bargain


LEXINGTON, Ky. - After his victory in the Preakness Stakes, Curlin filled the eye of race watchers and television viewers around the country as a grand specimen of the Thoroughbred racehorse. Not only is the son of Smart Strike a game and talented colt, but the blaze-faced chestnut is a big, very robust, and handsome animal who seems to improve with each race.

At this pinnacle of his young career, he has a nearly spotless racing record and a future of great promise. At the sales in 2005, however, many yearling inspectors marked the future classic winner off their lists because of a minor veterinary concern.

So Curlin's success illustrates that a good-looking, well-balanced, athletic yearling should not be written off as a suitable prospect because of a minor blemish or two. While even Curlin had one, the man who saw the promise in the colt, despite a minor ding, was trainer Ken McPeek, who found in Curlin a colt with all sorts of athletic potential.

Bred in Kentucky by the Fares Farm of Lebanese politician and businessman Issam Fares, Curlin, like most of the Fares Farm homebreds, was consigned to the Keeneland September yearling sale, selling through Eaton Sales, agent, in 2005.

There McPeek acquired the colt as agent for Midnight Cry Stable for the pittance of $57,000.

"Curlin had a great hip and balance, a great presence," McPeek said. "Without the vet issue, he brings $200,000 to $300,000. So the buyers were able to get him for tremendous value for the level of potential he had.

"He was a very big, strong, serious horse - just a tremendous athlete. He wasn't for every buyer because he did not have the prettiest head, was not totally perfect in front.

"There was a note on him in the repository," he added, referring to the X-ray and veterinary information on yearlings, "and that put a lot of pinhookers off the horse. My vet felt that it would be fine with time, and we took a shot with him."

Taking that shot has paid enormous dividends to McPeek's client, Midnight Cry Stable, who not only got a Preakness winner but also sold a majority interest in the colt months ago for more than $3 million.

The veterinary comments on the yearling Curlin concerned his left front ankle.

In the long preparation to be a commercial yearling, Curlin had acquired a calcium deposit on that ankle that significantly diminished his value at the sales.

Shannon White, general manager for Fares Farm, explained that Curlin "was always about 10 percent above average for weight and height in his crop of foals. We weigh our foals monthly to keep track of their development, and he was one of our nicest."

As a rugged and robustly made young colt, however, Curlin began to bow out at the knees and turn in at the ankles, faults that are severely penalized by yearling buyers.

"He toed in badly in the left front ankle," White said, "and to correct that we had a transphyseal bridge put in place, and after it has been in place more than 30 days, you can have some calcification, which was the case with Curlin. The procedure was done at about 60 days of age, with one screw above the growth plate, one below the growth plate, and a wire that applied torque on that side of his ankle."

This procedure was done by Dr. Rolf Embertson at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital on the recommendation of Dr. Debbie Spike-Pierce, who does the vet work for Fares Farm.

This is a relatively common procedure, and is done to present buyers with yearlings that are expected to be sounder and more raceable.

The procedure with Curlin worked as planned, but there was the complication of calcification on the ankle.

"Despite our best efforts with after-care and sales prep, he carried the bump [from calcification] with him to the September sale," White said. "Naturally we were disappointed he didn't bring more at the sales, but he did have a blemish on his left front ankle."

Although the blemish cost the breeder at the sales, it doesn't seem to have slowed down Curlin one bit.

After Curlin won his debut impressively, Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, and George Bolton bought a majority interest in the colt and transferred him to trainer Steve Asmussen.

Curlin is the fifth foal out of his dam, the Deputy Minister mare Sheriff's Deputy. She has not had the most serene career as a broodmare. Her third foal, a half-sister to Curlin, died at 3, and the mare was barren the year after she produced the Preakness winner.

Then in 2006, the mare's filly by Medaglia d'Oro died as a foal.

On the positive side, Sheriff's Deputy has a good-looking and progressive filly at her side by Horse of the Year Saint Liam. This is one of the foals in the only crop by Saint Liam, who unfortunately died last summer as the result of a paddock accident.

Sheriff's Deputy was bred once to Curlin's sire, Smart Strike, after foaling this spring. She is not in foal, and will probably be given the year off.