06/10/2008 11:00PM

Curlin carries weight of expectations

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Barbara D. Livingston
Curlin will make his first start since the Dubai World Cup in Saturday's Foster.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - This week, it's Curlin's turn.

Everybody knows what happened last week when Big Brown took his turn in the Belmont Stakes.

"Big Brown's Belmont is a very good indication that nothing is a foregone conclusion in this game," said Steve Asmussen, who on Saturday will saddle the reigning Horse of the Year, Curlin, for the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Indeed, living up to huge expectations can be a tricky thing in the racing business. At this time last week, the hard part was determining where and when Big Brown would run against Curlin in a clash of superstars. The easy part, or so it seemed, was getting Big Brown to win the Belmont and Curlin to win the Foster.

Asmussen, who hedged on whether Curlin would actually run in the Foster when the colt was assigned 128 pounds Saturday, confirmed Tuesday that he will go ahead and bite the bullet.

"He needs to run," Asmussen said. "My issue with the weight is: June, 128. If he carries 128 now, where are you going to end up if you have success? We haven't had anybody carry that much in 10 years," referring to a 1998 campaign in which Skip Away won the Pimlico Special with 128 and the Iselin Handicap with 131.

"I'm always worried about tomorrow, but sometimes you just need to worry about today," Asmussen said.

Curlin, a winner in 8 of 11 career starts, enters the 1 1/8-mile Foster off four straight wins, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic last fall, and, most recently, the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 29. The 4-year-old colt has earned more than $8.8 million, third on the all-time list behind Cigar ($9,999,185) and Skip Away ($9,616,360). Asmussen and Curlin's 80 percent owner, Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables, have said one of their main goals this year is to break the earnings record.

The base purse for the Foster is $750,000, but last week Churchill revised the race conditions so that the purse will be $1 million if a Grade 1 winner starts. Asmussen said he decided to run after Curlin breezed a half-mile in 49 seconds Monday at Churchill.

"He worked good and came back good," he said. "I can gripe all I want about the weights, but the fact is I need to run him."

Asmussen said he often has heard how difficult it can be for a horse to return to peak form following a trip to Dubai.

"That's what we're addressing Saturday," he said. "I'm thinking it's very important that he's over the Dubai trip and back to where we expect. We're checking to see if he's back to the Curlin we've all come to know."

As for what lies beyond the Foster, "Everything will be based on what he does Saturday. Of course, there's all kind of things in my head about what we could do."

Curlin might have trouble racing again in New York because of licensing issues regarding William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, the jailed principals of the Midnight Cry Stable, which owns the remaining 20 percent interest in Curlin. Cunningham let his New York owner's license expire eight months ago, according to the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, and last week his attorney withdrew his application for a new license there. As a result, the Midnight Cry-owned Einstein was not entered as planned in the Manhattan Handicap on Belmont Day.

Asmussen said the attorneys representing Stonestreet are looking into whether the licensing issues of Curlin's minority owners could limit where he could race.

Gallion and Cunningham have been in jail since last August while awaiting criminal trial for allegedly misappropriating part of a $200 million settlement they reached on behalf of the clients in a class-action suit with the maker of the diet drug combination fen-phen.

As for that dream matchup of Big Brown and Curlin, "obviously, the interest is not at the same level" as before the Belmont, Asmussen said. "It's what everyone was talking about, everyone was curious to see, everyone wanted to see. Obviously, that's not the case right now."

When asked about what Dutrow said in the days after the Preakness in regard to a potential Curlin-Big Brown matchup - Dutrow told Daily Racing Form it would be "good for racing, it would be good for us, it wouldn't be so good for them" - Asmussen said: "He said a lot of things. I'm not known for kicking people when they're down. Obviously, the Big Brown people have their issues. How about getting all the air knocked out of you like that?"

Recalling Curlin's narrow defeat by Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont, Asmussen said, "I know how disappointed I was last year when I got beat a head. I can't even imagine being disappointed like they were Saturday. I don't want to imagine it."

So to avoid similar disappointment, Curlin must step up Saturday when it's his turn in the racing spotlight.

"We need to show up and run well," Asmussen said.