10/28/2007 11:00PM

Championships decided on the track

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Curlin and Robby Albarado had mud on their faces - literally but not figuratively - after their dominant score in the BC Classic.
OCEANPORT, N.J. - Steve Asmussen dashed out of his New Jersey hotel before dawn Sunday morning. There was work to do. It's that way pretty much year-round for Asmussen, who trains 200 horses on several different fronts.

But on Monday in Kentucky, he still was savoring the Breeders' Cup Classic victory on Saturday at Monmouth Park by Curlin, whose coda to a brilliant 2007 season will most assuredly bring Curlin honors as both Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male.

"I'm better than I ever remember being," Asmussen said with a laugh.

The Classic brought together all the leading contenders for Horse of the Year, but also was a melancholy race in that everyone knew it was the final time this outstanding crop of 3-year-olds would meet. Curlin, Hard Spun, and Street Sense were the stars of this group, along with Any Given Saturday. But of that quartet, only Curlin has a chance to race next year. Any Given Saturday, Hard Spun, and Street Sense all were purchased this year by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley USA, and will begin stud duty next spring.

"I think this will go down with the 1957 crop of Gallant Man, Bold Ruler, Round Table, and Iron Liege," Larry Jones, the trainer of Classic runner-up Hard Spun, said Sunday morning at Monmouth Park. "When I saw this group in the holding barn before the race, I'd never seen any of them look any better."

The one who stood out, though, was Curlin. As impressive as he looked this spring, he had filled out over the summer and fall into a handsome, imposing animal. And he ran to his looks, leaving no doubt in the Classic as to his superiority. He got a Beyer Speed Figure of 119 in his first race ever on an off track.

"I don't see any reason for him not to be" Horse of the Year, Jones conceded. "He showed up at every dance. Yes, he's a great horse, I think Horse of the Year. He'd get my vote."

An unfortunate by-product of this well-matched crop is that Curlin will get all the chips, leaving no championship this year for Hard Spun or Street Sense, who were campaigned just as aggressively as Curlin.

"This was a great race, it was a tough race," said Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense. "Yeah, it could have been the track. Yeah, it could have not been the track. It's a horse race and it's over and we got outrun. Curlin ran a great race, he ran a fantastic race."

Curlin was flown to Kentucky on Sunday afternoon and will remain there for the time being, Asmussen said. Curlin will not race again this year. Curlin is owned by a partnership, and two of the partners, attorneys William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr. - who race as Midnight Cry Stable - are awaiting trial in Kentucky on fraud charges. It's unclear how that might affect a deal on Curlin's stud career, which could be a factor in the colt remaining in training.

Another consideration is that the coast is clear for Curlin in 2008 to do even better. He's already proven he's the best of this group, and most of his top challengers are heading to stud. In addition, another son of Curlin's hot sire, Smart Strike - BC Turf winner English Channel - is being retired to stud.

Awesome Gem, who was third in the Classic, and Tiago, who was fifth, returned to California and will race there next year. Plans are uncertain for Lawyer Ron, who finished seventh and has legal issues among his principals shadowing him.

Even though this year's Breeders' Cup was run in difficult conditions, over a sloppy main track and a soft turf course, the racing both Friday and Saturday largely was formful and yielded winners who likely will be embraced as champions by Eclipse Award voters.

The 2-year-old filly Indian Blessing (Juvenile Fillies) and the 2-year-old colt War Pass (Juvenile) completed undefeated seasons and wrapped up Eclipse Awards with their victories, both as betting favorites. Indian Blessing got a Beyer Speed Figure of 95, while War Pass got a Juvenile record 113.

Midnight Lute (Sprint) also was favored, and secured an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter. He got a Beyer Figure of 108.

Ginger Punch (Distaff) was the narrow second choice in a wide-open race that likely decided the champion older filly or mare. She got a Beyer Figure of 104.

Lahudood captured the Filly and Mare Turf while earning a Beyer Figure of 105, a victory that makes her the slight favorite for an Eclipse Award as top female turf runner. She defeated the previously unbeaten Nashoba's Key, who won races on both turf and artificial surfaces this year, putting her in contention for both champion older filly or mare and champion female turf horse.

Lahudood has been retired, Ginger Punch is likely to be retired, but Nashoba's Key will race next year.

The battle for champion male turf runner should be between Breeders' Cup winners Kip Deville (Mile), who got a Beyer Figure of 108, and English Channel (Turf), who received a Beyer Figure of 111 in his career finale. English Channel should be favored in that category.

Even though Lawyer Ron ran poorly in the Classic, he did finish second to Curlin in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and won both the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga to make him the favorite for champion older male. But Eclipse voters might circle back and consider Invasor, who had to be retired earlier this year following victories in the Donn Handicap and Dubai World Cup.

Another Breeders' Cup absentee, Belmont Stakes and Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches, is favored to win the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly, though her Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate Octave -who finished a close third in the Distaff - might have been a champion had she been born any other year.

Friday's three Breeders' Cup races included one race that should determine a champion. This year, for the first time, an Eclipse Award will be given to champion female sprinter, and Maryfield likely secured that title with her win in the Filly and Mare Sprint, in which she got a Beyer Figure of 101.

There is no Eclipse Award for milers or 2-year-old turf runners. Corinthian, in his final start before going to stud, got a Beyer Figure of 119 when winning Friday's Dirt Mile. Nownownow got a Beyer Figure of 85 for winning the inaugural Juvenile Turf.

Among trainers, Bob Baffert will have two champions (Indian Blessing and Midnight Lute), but Pletcher could have as many as three (English Channel, Lawyer Ron, and Rags to Riches).

Garrett Gomez made himself the front-runner for an overdue first Eclipse Award as champion jockey with victories on Indian Blessing and Midnight Lute to help widen his lead in purse earnings for the year.

- additional reporting by David Grening