09/27/2008 12:00AM

Curlin aims for history

Barbara D. Livingston
Curlin will be out for a repeat victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, pushing his earnings past $10 million.

ELMONT, N.Y - Though he had won the Preakness four months earlier, Curlin did not truly stamp himself as something special until he upset the 4-year-old Lawyer Ron in last September's Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Saturday, Curlin enters the 90th renewal of the historic Gold Cup at Belmont Park with a chance to stamp his legacy. For if Curlin wins the Gold Cup for a second consecutive year, he will become North America's all-time leading money earner, surpassing the legendary Cigar's figure of $9,999,815. A victory would not only make Curlin North America's first $10 million earner, it would keep alive Curlin's hopes of winning a second straight Horse of the Year title, something that hasn't been done since Cigar did it in 1995-96 and that has only been done by such luminaries as Affirmed, Forego, Secretariat, Kelso, Whirlaway and Challedon.

"It's really not about money," said Jess Jackson, majority owner of Curlin. "But I truly believe he's a champion - he's proven it. To have competed fairly and well in the classics, to win the Gold Cup and go to Monmouth and win the [Breeders' Cup] Classic and then to go to Dubai, he has already proven he's one of the best in the last half century, if not the century. That's an owner's selfish view of the horse he loves."

The $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup is the centerpiece of an 11-race Belmont Park card that features four other Grade 1 stakes - the $600,000 Beldame, the $600,000 Flower Bowl, the $400,000 Vosburgh, and the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. The winner of the Gold Cup receives a guaranteed berth in the Breeders' Cup Classic as part of the Win and You're In series.

The Flower Bowl, Vosburgh, Joe Hirsch, and Gold Cup make up an all-stakes pick four with a guaranteed pool of $500,000. There is also a stadium-seat giveaway.

Curlin's victory in last year's Gold Cup started a streak of six consecutive victories on dirt. He did finish second in the Grade 1 Man o' War on grass here in July. In his first start after that race, Curlin won the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga, but it was a harder race than many expected, and his final eighth of 14.01 seconds raised some eyebrows. The race's toll has trainer Steve Asmussen more concerned than the running time.

"That is the concern," Asmussen said. "He had a harder race than I was hoping for, but he is doing very well and he's responded to tough races in the past extremely well. We're hoping that trend continues with him."

The prospect of heavy rain Friday into Saturday could make for an off track for the Gold Cup. Curlin's only race on an off track came in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, a race he won by 4 1/2 lengths, earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 119.

Curlin, who will break from post 5 under Robby Albarado, will have eight challengers in the Gold Cup, contested at 1 1/4 miles. The one given the best chance of beating Curlin is Mambo in Seattle, the nose loser of the Travers who will seek to become the third straight 3-year-old (and 32nd overall) to win the Gold Cup.

"It gives you a little bit of a comfort zone knowing it has been and can be done again, but Curlin's in good form," said Neil Howard, trainer of Mambo in Seattle. "One of the biggest things that closed the deal for [owner Will Farish] and I was he has uncharacteristically improved with every race including the Travers and he's kept on moving forward."

Howard said a wet track wouldn't hinder Mambo in Seattle, but "it won't hinder [Curlin] either.'' Mambo in Seattle, who gets four pounds from Curlin, will break from post 9 under Edgar Prado.

Timber Reserve is an intriguing upset candidate. Winner of the Pennsylvania Derby at 3, Timber Reserve was plagued by foot problems for the better part of a year. He showed that he was over them with a solid third-level allowance win at Saratoga, and trainer John Kimmel believes his horse has never been better.

"I don't know if I ever had him this good," said Kimmel, who is concerned about the prospects of an off track.

Wanderin Boy, trained by Nick Zito, finished second to Bernardini in the 2006 Gold Cup and was third to Curlin in the Woodward.

"Curlin's a great horse. I'm only hoping we catch him on an off day when he's not one million percent,'' said trainer Nick Zito. "Wanderin Boy is pretty good - he could give him a tough time."

Like Zito, trainer Todd Pletcher has a healthy respect for Curlin. Still, Pletcher is sending out both A.P. Arrow and Ravel against Curlin. Ravel may have the most upside as he makes his second start off an extended layoff precipitated by a significant eye injury. Though Ravel finished fourth in his return, Pletcher believes "it was a sneaky-good race." Still, he believes it's going to take an extraordinary effort to knock off Curlin.

"I would have trouble knocking Curlin's record at all ever," Pletcher said. "I thought he's been extremely impressive in all his starts this year. . . . While maybe he didn't destroy everybody in the Woodward, I thought he overcame adversity and ran extremely well. I think it'd be foolish to predict that he won't win the Jockey Club Gold Cup."

Completing the field are Stones River, 3 for 3 on off tracks; Angliana, who has finished in the top three in 16 of his last 18 starts; and Merchant Marine, who is 5 for 6 at Belmont and goes out for three-time Gold Cup-winning trainer Allen Jerkens.