07/13/2008 12:00AM

Curlin begins new challenge

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs

ELMONT, N.Y. - Curlin opens a new chapter in an already remarkable story Saturday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park.

The 2007 Horse of Year, Curlin will make his turf debut in the 1 3/8-mile race. Majority owner Jess Jackson and trainer Steve Asmussen hope the Man o' War will be a springboard to a loftier goal: the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France in October.

Before taking that leap, Curlin must pass this test against a solid field that includes a pair of Breeders' Cup Turf winners - Better Talk Now (2004) and Red Rocks (2006).

The Man o' War is a fresh challenge for the 4-year-old Curlin, who has built a five-race winning streak that includes four Grade 1 triumphs: the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, the Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park, the Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba, and the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Having conquered the world on dirt, Curlin will try for the same on grass, starting here.

"I think the question we want answered this weekend is if he's the caliber to be considered for the Arc on the turf," Asmussen said. "Two previous Breeders' Cup Turf winners in the race will definitely give us that measure.

"We don't want to kid ourselves about his turf form before we do something as serious as venturing to France. We're definitely going to get our wish and get a true test of his turf ability."

It is an ambitious, and in many respects sporting, quest. Curlin could easily remain in the lucrative Grade 1 handicaps on the main track, where he has been the closest thing to a sure thing.

Jackson's intent is to make history as the first Breeders' Cup Classic winner to capture the Arc.

"Curlin is a truly remarkable horse," Jackson said in a text message. "I am excited to again be sharing him with racing fans around the world. I continue to race him as a 4-year-old not only to thrill the fans, but to showcase the strength and durability of older horses on the track. Saturday's race will be another test in Curlin's campaign to be the best horse ever, regardless of surface, competition, or continent."

It's a quest that has drawn the admiration of rivals.

"I give them a lot of credit for doing it," said Graham Motion, Better Talk Now's trainer. "It's something that we rarely see these days, people prepared to take on a challenge when there are so many opportunities to find easier spots."

One of the potential challenges for Curlin will be distance. This will be his first race beyond 1 1/4 miles since his memorable loss by a head to the filly Rags to Riches in last year's 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. Asmussen sees the added ground as an advantage, pointing to the Belmont, where the last half-mile went in 48.51 seconds, and the Stephen Foster, with a final three-eighths in 36.27, as evidence of Curlin's ability to go longer.

"The way he gallops out training, distance is something that excites us about him," Asmussen said.

As usual, Robby Albarado will be aboard Curlin, who arrived at Belmont from Kentucky on Thursday afternoon.

There had been concern whether Curlin would be allowed to run in the Man o' War because the assets of his minority owners, the Midnight Cry Stable of the jailed attorneys William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr., are being managed by a court-appointed receiver. Thursday, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board cleared the way for Curlin to compete by issuing an owner's license to the receiver, according to Dan Toomey, a spokesman for the board.

Better Talk Now, the veteran in the race at age 9, will be looking for his first win since the 2007 Manhattan Handicap. Most recently, Better Talk Now wound up in tight quarters in this year's Manhattan and finished fifth.

This will be the third U.S. visit for Red Rocks, trained by Brian Meehan. The 5-year-old Red Rocks came over from England for the last two editions of the Breeders' Cup Turf, winning in 2006 and finishing third last year. He adds blinkers for the first time.

The Man o' War will be televised live on ESPNews. Approximate post time is 5:15 p.m. Eastern.

- additional reporting

by Matt Hegarty