07/30/2007 11:00PM

Curlin gears up for Haskell

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Curlin breezed a half-mile on Tuesday at Saratoga to prepare for the Haskell Invitational on Sunday at Monmouth Park ? and even bigger goals beyond.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - With a full moon shining down from just behind the finish line and the sun beginning to dawn over the six-furlong pole, Preakness winner Curlin walked onto the Oklahoma training track right on schedule at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday for his final serious work prior to Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Looking a picture of health, as strong and robust as he did for all three Triple Crown races, Curlin breezed an easy half-mile in 49.56 seconds under exercise rider Carmen Rosas, posting fractions of 13 seconds for an eighth of a mile and 25.52 for a quarter before galloping out five furlongs in 1:03.97. The move had trainer Steve Asmussen in good spirits as Curlin cooled out back at the barn with assistant trainer Scott Blasi on the lead shank.

"He looked great, and the work was very good," said Asmussen. "He did it just about the way we drew it up. Carmen is amazing when it comes to that sort of thing."

With the major work now done, Curlin will ship to Monmouth Park on Wednesday, and Asmussen said he's excited and looking forward to getting him back in action in the Haskell.

"Even though he had three hard races in the Triple Crown, I never took him out of training after the Belmont," said Asmussen. "It was amazing when we took him back to the track for the first time following that race how he looked exactly like he did the first day I got him in New Orleans earlier this winter. And how smooth and relaxed he went. All he really skipped was a couple of breezes. He had his first work on July 2 and has worked regularly ever since."

Curlin was turned over to Asmussen after being purchased privately by a partnership that includes Jess Jackson, Satish Sanan, and George Bolton within days of winning his career debut by nearly 13 lengths at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3. After cruising to easy wins in the Grade 3 Rebel and Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, Curlin finished third in the Kentucky Derby. He upset Street Sense by a head with a courageous stretch run in the Preakness before dropping a head decision to the filly Rags to Riches in another thrilling stretch drive in the Belmont.

"I haven't felt like he's backed off one bit," said Asmussen. "People talked about his lack of experience throughout the Triple Crown, but that just doesn't come into play with this horse. He doesn't take the natural progressions and regressions other horses do. He doesn't have the same highs and lows. He's been right there at the same level all along. He's spoiled us with his consistency. There is just nobody else I can compare him to."

Asmussen said he chose the Haskell rather than Saratoga's Jim Dandy last weekend for Curlin's return because the race will be over the same Monmouth Park surface as the colt's main goal, the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"We want to find out what we need to do to get the money in the Classic - how he runs the turns and handles the length of the stretch," Asmussen said. "Those are some of the questions that we need to answer before the Breeders' Cup, where, hopefully, the issue of Horse of the Year will be decided."

Asmussen is hesitant to say where Curlin might run after the Haskell, although he did suggest his colt likely would have two races between the Haskell and the Breeders' Cup.

"We are all aware of what races are out there," Asmussen said when asked specifically if the Travers could be on his itinerary this summer.

A strong field runs with Curlin in New Jersey on Sunday, including Triple Crown rivals Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun.

"We've never run him off this type of layoff, but there's not as much pressure on us now as there was during the Triple Crown," Asmussen said. "He was an unknown then, but not now. He's set up to run his race, and I have great confidence in him going into the Haskell."