06/12/2008 11:00PM

Curlin looking like a million

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Barbara D. Livingston
Curlin, without a start since his Dubai World Cup victory on March 29, will be spotting his Stephen Foster opponents 10 to 15 pounds.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Turn the page, racing fans.

Yes, the latest chapter in Triple Crown futility is only a week old, its history still being rewritten by armchair quarterbacks on talk shows and sports pages across the country.

Yet at some point everyone will have to get past what happened with Big Brown last Saturday in the Belmont Stakes - and it's the reigning Horse of the Year, Curlin, who can help get that process started.

Making his return to action Saturday in the Stephen Foster Handicap, Curlin will be heavily favored against nine other older horses. The Grade 1 Foster Cap is one of six graded stakes on a terrific 11-race card at Churchill Downs.

Robby Albarado again will be aboard Curlin in the 27th running of the Foster, which sports a $1 million purse for the first time. The original purse of $750,000 is being supplemented with a $250,000 bonus if a Grade 1 winner starts. Besides Curlin, an earner of more than $8.8 million, the other Grade 1 winners entered are Einstein and Brass Hat.

Curlin will carry high weight of 128 pounds when he breaks from post 1 in the 1 1/8-mile Foster. Known for a devastating combination of tactical speed and closing punch, Curlin will be looking for his ninth victory from 12 career starts. The 4-year-old colt comes off a romping victory in the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 29, and no one is more aware than trainer Steve Asmussen of how some horses returning from Dubai have been known to struggle.

"That's what we're addressing Saturday," said Asmussen. "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."

Because he is spotting his rivals 10 to 15 pounds, and because of the unknown Dubai variable, opposing trainers are hoping Curlin is beatable. Einstein, Brass Hat, and Grasshopper would seem to be the prime candidates to pull off a huge upset.

"Nothing's a given in this game," said Buff Bradley, trainer of Brass Hat. "We all saw that in the Belmont. Curlin is going to be very tough to beat, obviously, but we're sitting on go. We're ready."

Still, Neil Howard, trainer of Grasshopper, has his doubts.

"Honestly, I don't think Curlin is all that vulnerable," said Howard. "I agree with Steve in that weight is always a concern, but I've been seeing Curlin train here at Churchill, and he looks fabulous. He's got all you want in a great horse. He's got substance, and he should be able to carry that kind of weight.

"Having said all that, we're in there to try to beat him. My horse has trained very, very well since the Pimlico Special," the May 16 race in which Grasshopper was fifth as the 2-1 favorite.

Garrett Gomez, in from New York, picks up the mount on Grasshopper, who will carry 117 pounds from post 5.

Another top jockey in from New York is Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Famer who rode Big Brown in his Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins and has been the target of stinging criticism for his ride on the colt in the Belmont loss last weekend. Desormeaux has the call from trainer Todd Pletcher on Sam P.

Einstein, heretofore a turf specialist, will have to do better than the last time trainer Helen Pitts ran him on dirt. The Brazilian-bred Einstein was a nonthreatening sixth in the Donn Handicap in February. Otherwise, Einstein is a proven entity at the Grade 1 level, having earned more than $1.1 million while competing in high-end grass races.

The balance of the Foster field is Delightful Kiss, High Blues, Red Rock Creek, Jonesboro, and Barcola.

The Foster is the 10th of 11 races on a Saturday card that begins at 1:15 p.m. Eastern. The other graded stakes are the $300,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap, $200,000 Regret, $175,000 Northern Dancer, $200,000 Jefferson Cup, and $150,000 Early Times Mint Julep.

Post time for the Foster is 5:51 p.m. Live television coverage of all the Churchill action is being provided by HorseRacing TV.

The weather forecast for Saturday calls for morning thunderstorms, clearing, and a high of 85 degrees.