10/27/2008 12:00AM

Curlin lost a race, but no luster


ARCADIA, Calif. - On a backstretch crossroads last Saturday afternoon, John Gosden was following Raven's Pass over for the Breeders' Cup Classic when he broke stride briefly to acknowledge Steve Asmussen.

"Congratulations, Steve," Gosden said. "He's a remarkable horse."

"Thank you," Asmussen replied. Then he fell in behind Curlin.

Symbolic as the moment seemed, at least in retrospect, this sort of thing happens all the time in horse racing. Torches are passed with regularity, sometimes carried, sometimes dropped. But if you're any good at all, you're in for the long haul.

The first time Gosden and Asmussen breathed the same air was at Del Mar, more than a quarter of a century ago, when the Englishman was sketching the first lines of a much larger picture as a fledgling trainer of quality horses. Asmussen, still a teenager, was trying to be a jockey. That didn't last long.

What their encounter meant last Saturday in the Classic, when Raven's Pass defeated fourth-place Curlin by about 2 3/4 lengths over 1o1/4 miles of synthetic ground, needs a stretch of sober thought before drawing too many conclusions. Curlin's legacy deserves nothing less.

The temptation is to toss the result as an aberration in the Curlin continuum and paint the repatriated Gosden as a brilliant tactician who penetrated his old American scene at precisely the right moment. But when it comes to a horse like Curlin, who has meant so much to the American sport over two solid years of competition, it must be conceded that he lost the Classic every bit as much as Raven's Pass won it. In fathoming that loss, there are only two variations on the theme:

* Either Curlin was not the same horse this year he was last year, primarily based upon his less-than-spectacular victories in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, and he was ripe for upset on any surface.

* Or, Curlin, a heavy and aerobically superior Thoroughbred, was always able to overcome the debilitating slippage of traditional sandy loam tracks with a powerful, ever-thrusting stride, far different from the leaping, lighter motion embodied by a horse like Raven's Pass, who seems to get up and over any ground.

After winning the 2007 Classic over a muddy mess of a Monmouth main track, Curlin never needed to prove his manhood again. But in bringing his champion to Santa Anita for yet another challenge, Asmussen was feeding red meat to the remaining Curlin skeptics.

"It's just so frustrating to keep hearing that he's still got something else to prove," Asmussen said as he prepared to bring Curlin to the paddock. "He's still gotta do this, gotta do that, as if winning a Triple Crown race, the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup, and $10 million isn't enough to prove he's a great horse."

There is nothing wrong with blaming the surface for Curlin's defeat. Last year at Monmouth Park, the losses of Street Sense and Tiago in the Classic were accepted as a function of the badly compromised track, while at the same time racing mourned the death of the Irish-trained George Washington as a possible byproduct of that grim ground.

It is overly simplistic, though, to hail the synthetic surface as the reason that no horse died this year at the Breeders' Cup. Five have been lost during this decade, but three of those were on three different grass courses (Spanish Fern, Landseer, and Funfair), and yet there has been no clamor for Astroturf.

Still, 14 races over two days without the ambulance, at the Breeders' Cup level of intensity, is cause for careful optimism. Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, one of the on-call vets working the two-day Cup, noted that the only concern during the Friday and Saturday cards was two incidents of heat exhaustion. And only one of those was in a Breeders' Cup race.

As for the idea of sudden European dominance, after winning five of the nine Breeders' Cup events on Saturday, bear in mind that three of those came in grass races, still their preferred venue, and one took place in an anemic first running of the 1o1/2-mile a BC Marathon on the main track, a good idea that turned out to be either way ahead of or long past its time.

Anyway, when it comes to the Classic, Europeans have been threatening to take control of that race for years. The French shocker Arcangues, winning at 133-1 over fast Santa Anita dirt, was immediately thrown out as a result too goofy to be taken seriously. But a step here or there, a length or a nod, and the Euros would have won other Classics with Ibn Bey, Swain, Giant's Causeway, and Sahkee, and the ground had nothing to do with it.

Gosden took pains to point out that Raven's Pass would not have been in the Classic field this year had it been run on old-time dirt. Fine. We'll take him at his word. But not so with Classic runner-up Henrythenavigator, a colt who loved hard ground and raced for a dead-game Coolmore crowd. Had the Classic been run at Churchill Downs or Belmont Park, the Sunday morning papers might have been shouting, "Oh, Henry!" after a Curlin loss, and Raven's Pass would have been a mere footnote behind Goldikova in the Mile.