08/03/2007 12:00AM

Curlin the star, but he's no cinch

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Curlin has not run since losing the June 7 Belmont Stakes by a head to the filly Rags to Riches.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - In recent years, the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational has often attracted one 3-year-old who stood out over the field.

Bluegrass Cat, Roman Ruler, Lion Heart, War Emblem, and Point Given came to Monmouth Park's premier event of the summer and won, as expected.

In keeping with that tradition, the 40th running of the 1 1/8-mile Haskell on Sunday lured a marquee name in Preakness winner Curlin. The difference this time is the star faces serious competition.

Curlin will meet seven opponents, including Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun and convincing Dwyer winner Any Given Saturday. The lineup also features the unbeaten Cable Boy, Grade 1 winner Stormello, and multiple stakes winner Xchanger, making this the most anticipated Haskell since Belmont winner Touch Gold beat Free House and Tale of the Cat in 1997.

The Haskell is the 13th of 14 races on a card that includes a pair of Grade 3, $150,000 turf stakes: the Oceanport and the Matchmaker.

Post time for the Haskell is 6:12 p.m. Eastern with first post set for noon. A crowd of more than 40,000 is expected.

There are two guaranteed wagering pools: $200,000 for a $1 all-stakes pick four covering races 10-13 and $50,000 for a 50-cent pick five on races 5-9. TVG will provide live, full-card coverage.

Curlin has not run since losing the June 7 Belmont Stakes by a head to the filly Rags to Riches, concluding a hard run through the Triple Crown. The Haskell will start Curlin down the road to the Breeders' Cup Classic, which will be held here Oct. 27.

"That's the main reason we're running him in the Haskell," said trainer Steve Asmussen. "The Breeders' Cup is his major objective in the second half of the year."

The colt joined Asmussen's barn following a commanding win in his debut on Feb. 3 at Gulfstream. He jumped up immediately into stakes and won the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby. With only three races on his resume, Curlin was a late-running third in the Kentucky Derby before heading to Pimlico to nip Derby winner Street Sense by a head in the Preakness.

Street Sense, rested since the Preakness, returned last weekend to win the Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Now Curlin gets back to work.

According to Asmussen, Curlin has neither missed a beat nor taken a step back since the Belmont.

"This horse has definitely spoiled us with his consistency throughout the Triple Crown races, as well as his subsequent works," he said.

A quick pace is expected in the Haskell with Stormello, Cable Boy, Xchanger, and Hard Spun all possessing good early speed. Curlin is expected to come from several lengths back.

"We'll let the Haskell unfold with enough confidence in Curlin's ability to get the job done," Asmussen said. "We will leave there knowing what we plan on doing when we come back for the Classic."

Curlin and Hard Spun were the only horses to run in all three jewels of this year's Triple Crown.

Hard Spun also will be making his first start since the Belmont, where he finished fourth.

"He's done well," said trainer Larry Jones. "He's put on some pounds. He came through the Triple Crown well but I was glad we got to a point where we could give him a little break. The time off has been good."

Mario Pino returns to the saddle after being replaced by Garrett Gomez in the Belmont.

"We didn't see any improvement when we changed," Jones said. "We've decided now to keep our team together and Mario is on our team."

Gomez will be aboard Any Given Saturday, who bounced back from an eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby with a decisive win in the Dwyer at Belmont on July 4.

"The horse has done extremely well since the Dwyer," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "We are extremely happy with the way he ran. It was sort of a breakthrough performance for him. We're hoping he can duplicate that kind of race in the Haskell. If he can, he'll make his presence felt."

Pletcher and co-owner WinStar Farm won last year's Haskell with Bluegrass Cat.

Cable Boy is unbeaten in three starts, all at this meet. Stormello is winless in four races since capturing the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity last December. Xchanger captured the Grade 3 Barbaro Stakes at Delaware Park last time out.