09/24/2008 12:00AM

Cigar's mark in Curlin's grasp

Barbara D. Livingston
In Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, Curlin shoots for a mark that has stood for 12 years - Cigar's North American earnings record.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Bill Mott knew the day would eventually come when a horse would break Cigar's North American earnings record. The Hall of Fame trainer was simply happy to have been associated with the mark for the last 12 years.

"It was bragging rights while it lasted," Mott said in a recent interview. "It was only a matter of time until somebody was going to be able to surpass it. It's like everything else - track records, hitting records - most of them are being broken at some point."

Cigar's record of $9,999,815 is on the cusp of being broken by Curlin, who would surpass the $10 million mark in earnings with a victory in Saturday's $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. While a win would enable Curlin, currently at $9,796,800, to become the all-time money-earner as far as horses based in North America are concerned, the Japanese-based T.M. Opera O is Thoroughbred racing's all-time money leader with $16,200,337.

The economics of racing is one reason why Curlin is in position in just his 15th lifetime start to surpass Cigar, who raced 33 times, winning 19, including 10 Grade 1's. When Cigar won the inaugural Dubai World Cup in 1996 the purse was $4omillion, of which $2.4 million went to Cigar. When Curlin won it last March, the purse was $6 million, of which Curlin earned $3.6 million. When Cigar won the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic, the pot was $3 million, of which he earned $1.56 million. Last year, it was $5 million, of which Curlin earned $2.7 million.

Talent is another reason. Curlin has won 10 of 14 starts including the Arkansas Derby, Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders' Cup Classic at 3, and the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster, and Woodward at 4.

While the connections of Curlin - owner Jess Jackson, and trainer Steve Asmussen - don't see the record as necessary to stamp Curlin as a great horse, they would be happy to have it nonetheless.

"Cigar left an indelible memory; he raced [33] times he was always a competitor in every race," Jackson said during a national conference call Tuesday. "Beating his financial record is a very big part of Curlin's legacy, but only because people of our society are more focused on dollars than they should be. Curlin on his own merit is a great horse. To be compared to a Cigar or a Secretariat or to any other great horse is just a great honor for Curlin."

"Personally, I know how much respect that I had watching Skip Away and Cigar run and horses that are on the list," Asmussen said Tuesday from Dallas. "The pride that you feel in Curlin and the fact that you want other people to feel the same way. I like the company he's in."

Asmussen said he was in attendance at Arlington Park on July 13, 1996, the day Cigar won the Citation Challenge in which he equaled Citation's modern-day record of 16 consecutive victories. Asmussen said he was struck by "how much the fans truly appreciated the horse; that's what it's about."

Cigar won those 16 consecutive races at nine different tracks and two continents. But it was Cigar's 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic victory at Belmont Park that will always stand out to Mott.

"It was done in the mud - it finalized an undefeated season," Mott said. "He went 10 for 10 that year; it was just really special. It was an unbelievable feeling to do that. It's hard to win two in a row much less 10 in a row in a season."

Coincidentally, last year's Breeders' Cup Classic was the first race Asmussen mentioned when asked about his personal highlights with Curlin, though he believes the Dubai World Cup was Curlin's best race.

"The Classic, under the circumstances, with the company, was tremendous, but the World Cup was his most dominating performance, I thought," Asmussen said.

Back-to-back victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was something Cigar did not achieve, as he was beaten a head by Skip Away in the 1996 Gold Cup. Eight horses have won the Gold Cup in back-to-back years, including Kelso (who won it five straight times), Nashua, and most recently Skip Away, who ranks third on the all-time money list.

The history of the Gold Cup is one reason why Jackson chose to run Curlin in that race as opposed to Saturday's Goodwood at Santa Anita, where Jackson perhaps could have learned if Curlin can handle that track's new Pro-Ride surface. Santa Anita is where this year's Breeders' Cup Classic will be held on Oct. 25.

"What do you do when you have a chance to go to the Jockey Club and win it a second time?" Jackson said. "The Jockey Club Gold Cup was the test of the champion in the old days before the Breeders' Cup. I'm very much a historian and I wanted to track what other great horses have done."

It appears as though Curlin, who arrived at Belmont Park from Saratoga on Tuesday, will have seven opponents in Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup - led by the 3-year-old Mambo in Seattle, who is coming off a nose loss in the Travers. On Tuesday, trainer Todd Pletcher confirmed that he would run both A. P. Arrow and Ravel in the Gold Cup.

Others planning to run are Merchant Marine, Timber Reserve, and Wanderin Boy. Frost Giant, winner of the Suburban, is possible.

Curlin vs. Big Brown still a possibility

Jackson has yet to commit Curlin to a defense of his Breeders' Cup Classic title at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, but he is in the process of doing due diligence. He already has made one site survey at Santa Anita to see the installation of the synthetic Pro-Ride surface, and on Tuesday's conference call, he said he intended to make another visit to Santa Anita quite soon.

"The surface is untested," Jackson said. "I'd like to see Curlin on the track, but we're not going to decide whether to ship him until we see how he performs in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

"We may ship Curlin out to California," Jackson said. "I'd like to see him on it. A lot will be determined over the next week with the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita."

Jackson, who lives in California, said he would "really like to see Curlin race here." But he reiterated that no decision would be made until next week at the earliest.

Jackson said other races under consideration for Curlin are the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 28, and the Japan Cup Dirt on Dec. 7. This year's Japan Cup Dirt will be run at Hanshin over a clockwise, or right-handed, course.

"So much depends on the condition of the horse," Jackson said regarding the Breeders' Cup. He said other factors to consider, besides the new Pro-Ride surface, are getting Curlin acclimated to the surface before the race, as well as "my desire to see him run against the best anywhere."

"Those are the plusses and minuses of the Breeders' Cup," Jackson said.

Jackson said the thought of running in the Classic against Big Brown and European standouts Henrythenavigator and Duke of Marmalade was enticing.

"I think it will be a star-studded field," Jackson said. "I hope we could compete."

Jackson said he had no interest in running in a match race against Big Brown.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman