03/24/2008 11:00PM

Champ right at home

Michele MacDonald
Curlin has been in Dubai for more than a month and has a victory at Nad Al Sheba under his belt as a Word Cup prep.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Steve Asmussen is a doer. When you have gotten up before the sun to take care of and ride horses since you were a child, when you oversee one of the largest racing operations in the world, one spread all over North America, you are a man of action.

Steve Asmussen also is a thinker. And do not believe for a nanosecond that every move he makes with Curlin, the reigning Horse of the Year, is not the product of incessant mental activity.

"He's kind of a horse that consumes your thoughts," Asmussen said, reached by phone this week.

On Monday at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse, where Curlin will race Saturday night as the favorite in the $6 million Dubai World Cup, Curlin had an easy half-mile workout. Of course, every person gathered anywhere near the racetrack stopped to watch. Curlin does not hide his superiority well. He is massive, he is flashy, and he exudes the kind of power that turns people on to racehorses.

Curlin was only one of many U.S.-based horses out for morning exercise. But he was the only U.S.-based horse intimately familiar with the Nad Al Sheba experience.

Curlin has been here since Feb. 17 - five weeks in Dubai. He has worked several times at Nad Al Sheba. He has eaten, slept, and gazed over the quarantine barn here every day, and he has even raced here already, winning a handicap race on Feb. 29 designed especially for his presence. Horses based during the winter in the United States have won the Dubai World Cup six times, but none has ever gone about things this way. This is the way that Asmussen - thinking hard - decided would be ideal.

The reasons are several. Asmussen already has outlined the "second-time" theory: The second time Curlin does things, Asmussen believes, Curlin does things better. From the Rebel to the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park; from the Belmont Stakes to the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park; and from the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, where Curlin ran third, to the Breeders' Cup Classic there, which Curlin won by 4 1/2 lengths.

"Given how much more comfortable he is the second time he does things, I just thought it gave him the best chance to show his best," Asmussen said.

But there is more to Curlin's early arrival. Asmussen knows well the post-Dubai syndrome that has afflicted American horses before. The experience can be draining. To win the World Cup, a horse must run a top race, and for an American horse that means peaking after shipping halfway around the world and into a desert climate.

Fully acclimated to his surroundings, and with a local prep race a month behind him, Curlin - so it is hoped - will return home after the World Cup ready for more.

"I don't want this to be the end of his year," said Asmussen. "I think you can look at the animal and see how well-adjusted he is from the trip. I do not think he's going to be the most tired horse cooling out [after Saturday's race] by far. And we are expecting a very big second half of the year for him.

"We've approached this year the same way we did last year," Asmussen continued. "Last year he had a distinctive two seasons: Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup Classic. This year: Dubai World Cup, Breeders' Cup Classic."

Asmussen emphasized the importance of Curlin having a race at Nad Al Sheba, which is configured much differently than oval-shaped U.S. racetracks.

"The turns aren't typical there, and we've all seen Curlin hang right," Asmussen said. "He's a lot better about it, but it's something he's always done."

When he won his career debut at Gulfstream Park, Curlin wound up in the middle of the racetrack after drifting right. He went right winning the Jaguar Trophy Handicap by a measured 2 1/4 lengths here Feb. 28. The stewards' report on the race reads: "Curlin had a tendency to lay outwards in running."

Monday morning, out for his easy breeze, Curlin galloped into his work with his head lolling to the right - nothing new for his regular morning rider, Carlos Rosas.

"A lot of people ask me why he does that," Rosas said. "That's just him."

Asmussen's Curlin strategy has significantly altered the life of both Rosas and Scott Blasi, Asmussen's top assistant. The two flew with Curlin from New Orleans to Florida, and from Florida to Dubai. Like Curlin, they will have been in this distant land for six weeks before returning home.

"You come here to do a job," Blasi said. "I'm not ever going to complain about being with Curlin."

No one has been with Curlin more than Blasi and Rosas, and it's a mark of Asmussen's faith in them that he sent Curlin so far in advance. Asmussen came here the day before the prep race and left the day after. He arrives in Dubai for the World Cup on Friday.

"I don't know Curlin without Scott Blasi and Carlos," Asmussen said. "Since Feb. 10 of last year, I think that horse has probably been to the racetrack five or six times that Carlos wasn't on him and Scott wasn't leading him. The first thing that happens to me every day for over a year has been Scott giving me the status of Curlin. I walk in the barn in New Orleans, it's Scott giving me the status of Curlin. I watch Curlin go and I'm pleased, but I don't watch Curlin go without asking Carlos how he went. That's the relationship of them to him, and me to them."

Blasi remembers clearly leading Curlin off the horse van when he first arrived at Fair Grounds, a controlling interest in the horse having been purchased from Midnight Cry Stables by Jess Jackson, George Bolton, and Satish Sanan. Curlin had made his first start for trainer Helen Pitts - now he was in the Asmussen barn.

"He was a big, good-looking horse, and I'd seen him break his maiden," Blasi said. "But we've seen horses break their maidens like that and not go on."

For Blasi, the revelation that Curlin was something more came shortly thereafter.

"It was probably the third time we worked him at Fair Grounds," he said. "We broke him off behind two, got him to take back and eat dirt. The way he galloped out, I thought, 'This horse is different.' "

Rosas, an exercise rider with Asmussen since 2004, has ridden many stakes horses, but none with the Curlin feeling.

"There's a lot of power on this horse," Rosas said after Monday's work was done. "He moves so easy that he can trick you. He has such a long stride: Breaking off for a work, he can go in 13, and he's just galloping."

Blasi said Curlin "is just a professional athlete. If he has a bad day, he doesn't let you know it."

The trip to Dubai hasn't changed that. "The first day he trained here, he was looking around a little bit," Rosas said. "But by the second day, he was like, 'Okay, this is it.' "

Blasi came to feed at 4:30 a.m. during Curlin's first few days at Nad Al Sheba. Now, the night watchman serves breakfast, and Blasi and Rosas arrive at 5:30. Blasi, acting as groom, ties Curlin to the wall, washes the poultice off his legs. About 6:30, preparations begin for the daily trip to the racetrack. Back in the barn, Curlin is walked till he cools off, groomed, and fed at about 10:20.

All in all, it's turned into complete simulation of Curlin's regular routine back home. The idea was for Dubai to become home to this amazing horse. Steve Asmussen wants Curlin to win the Dubai World Cup. And this, he thinks, is the right way to do it.