09/30/2008 11:00PM

Curlin takes first trip over Pro-Ride


ARCADIA, Calif. - The scene was the familiar. There was Curlin, heading out to the track just after first light, exercise rider Carlos Rosas on his back, with assistant trainer Scott Blasi and his trusted pony, Pancho, right alongside. Starting last year, from Louisiana to Arkansas, to Kentucky, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey, and then this year to Dubai, Kentucky, and New York, they have been inseparable.

Hail, hail, the gang's all here in California now. And on Wednesday, now on Pacific time, the schedule was still the same. Curlin, just days removed from a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Saturday at Belmont Park and a subsequent cross-country flight to California, took his first steps toward a possible start at the end of the month in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

It was a typical first day back at the track following a race for Curlin. On a warm morning when it was 75 degrees at sunrise, Curlin walked or jogged the wrong way along the outside rail after stepping onto the track at 6:35 a.m., then turned around for a gallop. Fairly routine stuff. But every step he takes, every move he makes, will be watched closely over the next few weeks, because how Curlin adapts to Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface will be the determining factor as to whether majority owner Jess Jackson gives the green light for Curlin to defend his title in the Classic, which he won last year at Monmouth Park.

"You in?" Blasi was asked, jokingly, when he returned to the barn.

"The horse seems really happy," said Blasi, whom trainer Steve Asmussen has entrusted with Curlin's day-to-day oversight since the horse joined their barn in February 2007. "We'll see what happens. The track looks good. It seems to have a lot of cushion to it. But it doesn't matter if I like it. It matters if Curlin and Student Council like it."

Student Council, also pointing to the Classic, is the only other horse here for Asmussen, though more are expected to arrive within a week.

Blasi said Curlin was scheduled to work Monday - it will be an easy half-mile - and the two subsequent Mondays between now and the Breeders' Cup. Final entries for the Classic are due Oct. 21, the day after what would be his final work for the Classic.

Ron Charles, Santa Anita's president, and Sherwood Chillingworth, the executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Association, were part of the welcome wagon for Curlin on Wednesday morning, as were a smattering of horsemen and fans who lined the rail near Clocker's Corner.

"Tell me the last time you saw this much attention for a horse?" Charles said.

Chillingworth offered up Cigar (from 12 years ago) and John Henry (from 25 years ago). There's definitely a special feeling about Curlin's arrival.

Curlin looked sensational physically. Despite his ambitious schedule over the preceding four days, his chestnut-colored coat shined and his muscular physique was as imposing as ever.

"That's the first time I've ever seen him in person," said John Nelson, one of the association clockers at Santa Anita. "He's impressive, one of the best-looking horses I've ever seen."

Blasi said Curlin "knows he's someplace different."

"He's a smart horse," Blasi said. "He takes a lot of time to look around."

Blasi said the extreme heat that has settled here the past week - a high near 100 was forecast for Wednesday afternoon - was another factor in getting to California so quickly.

"It's all the more reason to get out here and give him a chance to get acclimated," Blasi said. "I remember how hot it was the last time they had the Breeders' Cup here."

How hot was it? Like a blast furnace, with fires in the hills nearby. End-of-days stuff.

"It's just like when we went to Dubai," Blasi said. "It helped that I had been there a couple of times before I took him over. Before you take the Horse of the Year off the van, you're glad you've been there before."

The Classic field should become further defined this weekend, with major races in both the United States and Europe.

Timber Reserve, scratched from the Jockey Club Gold Cup, comes back Friday night in the Grade 2, $350,000 Meadowlands Cup. Eight were entered in that 1 1/8-mile race, including Arson Squad, Past the Point, and the Nick Zito-trained 3-year-olds Anak Nakal and Da' Tara, the Belmont Stakes winner.

Pyro, another Asmussen trainee, on Wednesday drew the outside post in a field of 12 for the Grade 2, $500,000 Indiana Derby on Saturday at Hoosier Park.

And across the Atlantic Ocean, Duke of Marmalade will have his final start before a possible try in the Classic. He could run in either the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday in France, or on Friday in a race on a synthetic surface at Dundalk in Ireland.

There already is a high level of interest among Europeans in this year's Classic because it is on a synthetic surface. Both Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator, who finished one-two on Saturday in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, are under serious consideration for the Classic.