02/28/2008 12:00AM

Curlin ready for his desert debut

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Dubai Racing Club/Monica Pinheiro
Curlin, the 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year, has been training in Dubai since Feb. 20 with exercise rider Carmen Rosas and assistant trainer Scott Blasi, shown aboard his pony, Poncho.

Nad Al Sheba Racecourse sits outside Dubai's bustle, and not far away from the track's international quarantine barn is a mosque. A call to prayer is sung out at dawn, the sound drifting over the barn and up the long horse path Curlin follows to reach the racetrack where he has done his morning training the last week, a stranger in a strange land.

Training hours are short at Nad Al Sheba, with nothing like the heavy equine traffic to which Curlin is accustomed. A handful of onlookers watch him gallop, but there are far fewer eyes on Curlin than usual. Even a schooling trip at the starting gate Tuesday reinforced the fact that Curlin is a long way from home.

"The gates are smaller here," said Scott Blasi, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen. "He definitely fills them up."

Thursday night, Curlin will encounter other new situations when he makes the first start of his 4-year-old season in a $175,000 handicap race called the Jaguar Trophy and contested at 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles), same as the March 29 Dubai World Cup.

Curlin faces five foes in the fifth of eight Thursday races, with post time scheduled for 11:15 a.m. Eastern. Curlin carries 132 pounds, 15 more than his apparently overmatched rivals, with regular jockey Robby Albarado to ride.

The Thursday races in Dubai are being simulcast at various racetracks across the country, and several account-wagering sites are taking bets on the races, including Twinspires, Youbet, and XpressBet. HRTV is airing live coverage of Curlin's race. Gambling is illegal in Dubai, but in the States, Curlin will be an overwhelming favorite in a race he should dominate. Familiar Territory may be the second choice, but is rated 20 pounds inferior to Curlin.

Curlin capped a tremendous season with a stirring victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and is the rare top-class 3-year-old to remain in training at age 4. Curlin's fiercest rivals - Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday - have been retired, and are raking in millions of dollars in stud fees. But Jess Jackson, whose Stonestreet Stable owns 80 percent of Curlin, had other plans, and still stands to benefit from his choice.

Curlin's bankroll is $5.1 million, and with two wins in Dubai, he would come home with about $8.8 million in purses, third-best behind the all-time leading money earner Cigar, who won a shade less than $10 million. A second Breeders' Cup Classic win after a triumph in the World Cup could make him the most popular stallion in recent history.

Curlin arrived in Dubai on Feb. 17, accompanied by Blasi, exercise rider Carmen Rosas, and Blasi's pony, and after a quarantine period, he resumed training Feb. 20 and breezed an easy half-mile last Saturday. Curlin's major preparations for Thursday's race came at Fair Grounds, where he breezed several times in company with leading 3-year-old Pyro, and had an amazing solo work Feb. 12.

No U.S.-based horse has prepped in Dubai for the World Cup, but Asmussen hatched this plan some time ago, theorizing on the basis of victories in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, and the BC Classic at Monmouth that Curlin improves in his second start at a given venue.

For the horse and those who traveled with him, Asmussen's strategy means a six-week stay on the Arabian Peninsula.

"Everybody thinks it's a big vacation, but it's the same hours," Blasi said. "I get to the barn at 3:30 [a.m.]."

Curlin is the only horse in his barn, and his senses have been filled with strange sights, smells, and sounds, but Blasi has maintained old routines.

"We get there in the morning, I tie him to the wall just like at Fair Grounds, wash his poultice off, get a cup of coffee, and sit and wait to train him," Blasi said. "I've kept him on the same schedule so he knows when things are going to happen. He gets his breakfast at 4, gets his lunch the same time every day."

Tuesday's visit to the starting gate and the paddock went perfectly, Blasi said. Race night also will broaden Curlin's horizons. At least an hour before post time, horses must arrive at Nad Al Sheba's expansive paddock. Closer to the race, they are saddled and led on a path between sections of the grandstand to the walking ring where jockeys mount up. All this takes place under lights, another first for Curlin, but all this is why Asmussen sent Curlin in for Thursday's World Cup prep.

"It's all a little different," Blasi said. "A little dress rehearsal before the big night."

UAE Oaks: Rematch for two Suroor trainees

The Curlin undercard at Nad Al Sheba includes five listed races, most importantly the 1 1/8-mile, $250,000 UAE Oaks, featuring the Chilean-bred Cocoa Beach, who won the UAE 1000 Guineas by 5 1/4 lengths, and the Argentine-bred Fiesta Lady, runner-up in that one-mile race.

Both are trained by Saeed bin Suroor. Fiesta Lady will run for Godolphin and be ridden by Frankie Dettori, while the favorite, Cocoa Beach, will carry the colors of Sheikh Mohammed's wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, and be ridden by Ted Durcan.

- additional reporting by Alan Shuback