06/15/2008 11:00PM

Curlin has little left to prove


NEW YORK - As reigning Horse of the Year and a colt who won laughingly in the world's two richest races - the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup - Curlin had already established himself as a competitor of tremendous substance well before Saturday's Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. But by winning the Foster, again in runaway fashion, Curlin earned a distinction that has eluded so many other American-based horses: He managed to win a Grade 1 race back in this country after competing in the Dubai World Cup.

Only six American-based horses were able to accomplish this before Curlin: Pleasantly Perfect, Aptitude, Behrens, Victory Gallop, Formal Gold, and Cigar. By contrast, 24 American-based horses who competed in the Dubai World Cup either never won again, never ran again in the United States, or never ran again at all. This group includes so many horses who were either high-class or rock-solid stakes performers that it's clear that the long journey to Dubai, combined with a start in the World Cup, must extract a monumental toll.

It could be that trainer Steve Asmussen found the antidote when he sent Curlin to Dubai early for a local prep race. This plan was born from the belief that Curlin performs better the second time over a track, as evidenced by his win over the then red-hot Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup last fall in his second start at Belmont Park after being narrowly beaten by Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes. He also romped in the Breeders' Cup Classic in his second start at Monmouth Park after he finished third in the Haskell there, in the worst race of his career. It will be interesting to see if American horsemen with candidates for future Dubai World Cups elect to prep their horses in the Middle East.

Curlin's performance Saturday was visually impressive, and his weight assignment of 128 pounds added another layer to the cake. At the same time, Curlin was 2-5 and he was supposed to trounce a field of questionable strength. Einstein, who took the place photo from Barcola, is a terrific turf horse, but there is no evidence he is anywhere near as effective on dirt. Barcola, meanwhile, has always been a lion at Delaware Park and more like a lamb elsewhere. Fourth-place finisher Grasshopper turned in his third straight disappointing effort, while fifth-place finisher Brass Hat hasn't really been the same since he finished second in the 2006 Dubai World Cup. The one nitpick is that Curlin earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110, well below the 119 and 114 he earned in his last two U.S. starts.

Now the talk about Curlin targeting the turf and perhaps even taking a run at the Arc de Triomphe seems to be getting more serious. But it matters little if Curlin doesn't accomplish another thing on the track. He has already done enough to place his name squarely with Ghostzapper when it comes to the subject of the best horse of the decade.

While Curlin maintained his dominance of the older male division, there were notable stakes results over the weekend in two other divisions:

Older females - Ginger Punch, Unbridled Belle, and Hystericalady each recorded overwhelming victories in graded stakes Saturday. Ginger Punch, champion in this division last year, loves the one-turn route races at Belmont Park and romped in winning the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap. She earned a 103 Beyer, winning for the second time since she was crushed by the undefeated Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom, which makes you wonder what kind of freak Zenyatta is.

Unbridled Belle, who upset Ginger Punch last fall in the Grade 1 Beldame, ran away with Delaware Park's Grade 3 Obeah Stakes, equaling her career-best Beyer of 104. Unbridled Belle got away with an easy lead in the Obeah. But this was her first start since her fifth to Ginger Punch in last fall's Breeders' Cup Distaff, and as comebacks go, this was perfect. She will take a world of beating in next month's Delaware Handicap, a race she romped in last year.

Hystericalady crushed four overmatched opponents in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap on the Foster undercard. Her winning Beyer of 99 wasn't her best, but the Fleur de Lis was at nine furlongs, and even though Hystericalady narrowly missed against Ginger Punch at that distance in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, it is probably a bit farther than her optimum distance.

Three-year old males- Pyro, one-time favorite for the Kentucky Derby, got his first win since the Louisiana Derby and 98 Beyer with a workmanlike score in the Northern Dancer Stakes on the Foster undercard. But this was a strangely run race thanks to Recapturetheglory's curious trip.

Recapturetheglory, who went wire to wire when he won the Illinois Derby and who pressed the pace before finishing fifth in the Kentucky Derby, was the lone speed on paper in the Northern Dancer. Instead, Recapturetheglory was next to last going into the first turn, behind, among others, Pyro. Jockey E.T. Baird said Recapturetheglory didn't break well: "I was covered up immediately and I was forced to do what I really didn't want to do." After watching the replay many times, it is difficult to know what Baird meant. He never seemed interested in going after My Pal Charlie, who inherited the early lead in the first few jumps. Baird then took hold of Recapturetheglory, which enabled Pyro to move to the inside in front of him. Very puzzling.