10/13/2008 11:00PM

Curlin a step closer to Classic

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Less than 24 hours before he would need to be pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Curlin worked between races on Monday at Santa Anita, his move taking on even more interest from wider circles with Big Brown having been retired Monday.

The $5 million Classic on Oct. 25 was anticipated as a matchup between the two most prominent horses in racing in 2008, Big Brown and Curlin. Big Brown's connections had committed to the race, but those entrusted with the care of Curlin have been circumspect about his participation because of uncertainty over how Curlin will handle Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface. Curlin has never raced on a synthetic surface.

Curlin's work on Monday - five furlongs in 59.11 seconds in company with Hawaii Calls, a stablemate from the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen - was designed to most approximate the conditions Curlin would face in the Classic, should he run. It was a sunny afternoon, with a high temperature in the upper 70s, and a holiday crowd was on hand for the races. Asmussen and owner Jess Jackson had until Tuesday at noon Pacific to decide whether to pre-enter Curlin in the Classic, but after the work Monday they seemed to be leaning toward running.

"I'm extremely pleased with everything Curlin said to us - how he worked, and galloped out," Asmussen said. "I'm very anxious to see how he is in the morning. I want to see the same things. To this point, I'm extremely pleased."

"I hope tomorrow to enter him," Jackson said.

Curlin came on the track for his work between the fourth and fifth races. He broke off outside of Hawaii Calls and remained on even terms with Hawaii Calls, and they stayed together until the top of the stretch, where Curlin began to steadily draw away.

Exercise rider Carlos Rosas was aboard Curlin. Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan was aboard Hawaii Calls.

Asmussen also trains Student Council, who worked six furlongs in 1:12.40 at Santa Anita on Monday morning with Bridgmohan.

With Big Brown out of the race, officials at the Breeders' Cup and Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting are even more desperate to have Curlin compete. Curlin is the reigning Horse of the Year, and won the Classic last year when it was run at Monmouth Park. If Curlin also skips the Classic, the richest race of the year would be devoid of the two leading candidates for Horse of the Year.

The Classic is very much in flux. Big Brown is out, and Curlin is still not definite, but the Classic became far more intriguing on Sunday, when the Japanese-based colt Casino Drive won an allowance race at Santa Anita to remain unbeaten in three starts.

Casino Drive earned a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 92, but he was much the best, with jockey Victor Espinoza giving him a confident ride. Espinoza only gave Casino Drive one backhanded strike with the whip in the shadow of the wire.

"He came out of the race very well," Nobutaka Tada, the racing manager for Casino Drive's owner, Hidetoshi Yamamoto, said Monday morning from Hollywood Park. "We are very happy with him. We were really happy with the race. It was not too tough for him. It was a good breeze for him."

Tada said he was "very happy" with Espinoza's ride.

"We wanted the same jockey in the prep race to ride him in the Classic," Tada said. "We wanted a jockey here, who knows this surface."

At Churchill Downs on Monday, Pacific Classic winner Go Between worked a sharp seven furlongs in 1:23.60 for trainer Bill Mott. Go Between's excellent form on synthetic surfaces at Keeneland, Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park makes him a top contender in the first Classic to be run on a synthetic surface.

"He went along pretty good," Mott said from Kentucky. "He's been working well every time. He hasn't missed any training since the Pacific Classic. We've been able to do everything we've wanted. We've been really lucky with the weather here."

Mott said Go Between would work again Sunday or Monday at Churchill, then be flown to Santa Anita on Oct. 21.