10/21/2008 11:00PM

Curlin draws post 9 in Classic

Barbara D. Livingston
Curlin, working at Santa Anita on Sunday, goes for a second straight Breeders' Cup Classic victory on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - When Curlin went to Dubai earlier this year, he was attempting to establish himself as the best horse in the world. Eleven horses lined up against them that night at Nad al Sheba, and Curlin swatted them away like horseflies. On Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, Curlin will try to retain that position, and while the challenge this time won't be a trip halfway around the world, it might be even more daunting, a trip around a synthetic surface over which he has never raced.

Because of that uncertainty, 11 horses entered the Classic on Tuesday against Curlin. He is facing a star-studded field, including three outstanding runners from Europe - Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and Raven's Pass - and the Japanese invader Casino Drive.

Curlin wound up in post 9. Only one time in his career, which encompasses 15 races, has he started farther from the rail. That was in Dubai, where he had the outside post.

The Breeders' Cup has gotten so big that it took two programs spaced over nearly two hours on Tuesday to draw all 14 races. That was the Breeders' Cup marathon. When it was completed, 164 horses had been entered, including four also-eligibles and one horse excluded because of an oversubscribed field. Last year, when the Breeders' Cup was a quaint 11 races, there were 124 entries at the final entry stage. This year's average number of entries per field is 11.7, compared to 11.27 last year.

Two of the 14 races - the Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Juvenile Turf, both limited to 12 runners - had more than the maximum number of entries. For the first time, this year's Breeders' Cup allows for also-eligibles in those races. They have until Friday morning to draw in. Scratch time for all 14 Breeders' Cup races is Friday morning.

This will be the 25th Breeders' Cup, and the fourth to be run at Santa Anita. This year's Breeders' Cup has been expanded to 14 races, up from 11 a year ago and eight two years ago, and now encompasses two days, Friday and Saturday. Friday's card has five Breeders' Cup races, all for female horses, highlighted by the $2 million Ladies' Classic, in which the unbeaten Zenyatta will go for her ninth victory.

There are nine Breeders' Cup races on Saturday, anchored by the Classic, in which Curlin will try to win the race for the second straight year and, with it, his second straight title as Horse of the Year.

"This is the best quality Breeders' Cup fields we've had in the 25 years," Sherwood Chillingworth, the vice-president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, said Tuesday morning. "Not just the Classic, but the whole event."

In addition to Curlin, four other horses - Ginger Punch, Indian Blessing, Kip Deville, and Midnight Lute - are trying to win Breeders' Cup races for the second straight year, and two others - Better Talk Now and Red Rocks - are also past Breeders' Cup winners.

The dozen entered in the 1 1/4-mile Classic is two fewer than the maximum. Sixteen were pre-entered last week, but four went to other races. Mast Track, Pyro, and Well Armed all went into the Dirt Mile, while Awesome Gem was put in the Mile on turf.

The defections of Mast Track and Well Armed, both horses who usually race on or near the lead, helped sway the connections of Fairbanks to put him in the Classic, instead of the inaugural BC Marathon at 1 1/2 miles.

"Obviously that's a big part of the equation," Todd Pletcher, who trains Fairbanks, said Tuesday morning. "There doesn't appear, on paper, to be a lot of speed."

The Classic, as well as all main-track races, will be run on a synthetic surface for the first time in Breeders' Cup history. Santa Anita's surface, Pro-Ride, is used at no other racetrack in the United States.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Curlin, said the surface is the great unknown for Curlin in this race.

"It's a huge variable," said Asmussen, who acknowledged Curlin's dirt speed figures are superior to those of his rivals.

"If he can transfer that to a third surface, the sheets do look that way," Asmussen said. "He's been very fast his whole career. The concern is being able to transfer those numbers to a third surface."

Curlin was installed as the 7-5 favorite on the morning line of Santa Anita's Jeff Tufts. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, has Curlin at 8-5. Curlin has been 2-5 or less in all five of his races this year in which there was pari-mutuel betting, so his higher price this time reflects the uncertainty over how he will perform on a synthetic surface.

The weather at Santa Anita turned much hotter Tuesday, and will remain so through the weekend. High temperatures in the low-90s were forecast for Wednesday and Thursday by Weather.com, and the forecast is for high temperatures of 87 degrees on both Friday and Saturday. There is no possibility of rain in the forecast, meaning the turf should be extremely firm and the synthetic surface baked hard and fast.