03/15/2007 12:00AM

Curlin's talent is too big to ignore


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In filling out my brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament, I preferred teams with experience, ultimately choosing the Florida Gators to be repeat champs.

My strategy is different for handicapping Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. There, I believe experience will take a back seat to talent.

No horse in the race appears more talented than Curlin. A son of Smart Strike, he won his only start Feb. 3 at Gulfstream, winning by 12 3/4 lengths in a head-turning performance.

Admittedly, he was not facing stakes horses, but the ease with which he won suggests he is a special horse.

He certainly ran quickly. After carving out early fractions of 22.79 and 45.48 seconds, he quickly left his opponents far behind, completing the seven furlongs in 1:22.25. Curlin earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure, the second-highest Beyer in the Rebel field behind the 107 recorded by Flying First Class in his maiden victory.

Beyond the time of his race, Curlin looked good in victory. Breaking from post 2 in a field of eight, he was hustled to the front by jockey Rafael Bejarano and came under pace pressure.

Winstrella, a Gone West colt and a half-brother to Grade 2 winner Colonial Minstrel, was pinned on his outside in the early going. But after a quarter-mile, even with John Velazquez pumping on Winstrella to keep up, Curlin quickly began to get away from Winstrella. Winstrella held on to be second, but was not in the winner's class.

Curlin did race greenly - some cause for concern - drifting out leaving the turn, and continuing to do so in the stretch. He hit the wire at least 8 to 10 paths off the fence.

That did not scare away buyers. Within days, majority interest in him was sold to a group that includes Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable, Satish Sanan's Padua Stable, and George Bolton.

Stretching out to two turns for the first time, and coming off such a fast maiden win, Curlin is a bounce candidate. But the timing of the 1 1/16-mile Rebel and his preparation for the race leads me to believe the possibility for regression is lessened.

Breezing consistently on a weekly basis since mid-February, Curlin has been given a month and a half off since his maiden win. He also shows a work over the Oaklawn track March 12 for Steve Asmussen, who took over his training after the horse was sold.

Two opponents in particular figure to tussle with Curlin: Flying First Class, who comes off an eight-length maiden romp for Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, and Teuflesberg, a stakes-winning, battle-tested colt with 13 starts who possesses both speed and class.

But based on pure talent, I think Curlin plays at a higher level.

Turfway: Beware of Jade's Revenge

Over at Turfway Park, I like a price horse in the Tejano Run Stakes: Jade's Revenge. A 4-year-old Quiet American colt with modest form, he is encouragingly shipped to Turfway from his base at Fair Hill in Maryland by trainer Graham Motion.

Considering that Jade's Revenge comes off a third-place finish in allowance company, and was a claiming horse just last October, that is a bold move. But by choosing to ship the horse to run in a $50,000 race like the Tejano Run, Motion is strongly hinting to horseplayers that he is eager to race him on a synthetic surface.

He ought to know. He has been training him over a synthetic Tapeta surface at the Fair Hill Training Center.

Jade's Revenge will need a peak effort to win. Starspangled Gator, the likely favorite, has been first or second in five of six starts over Turfway's Polytrack. And the turf-loving Ascertain also has favorable experience on Polytrack, having won three races over Lingfield's Polytrack surface in Britain when he was based overseas a couple years ago.

Fair Grounds: Rolling Sea good single

Competition does not run as deep in the Saturday stakes race at Fair Grounds, the $75,000 Fortin Handicap. Only six fillies and mares were entered for the one-mile dirt race, and three - Morlana, Wild as Elle, and Rolling Sea - are trained by Asmussen.

The battle for the top prize is between Rolling Sea and Stormy Destin. Rolling Sea has won two stakes for Illinois-breds, while Stormy Destin is a stakes winner in Arkansas-bred company.

Forgetting their roots, both are talented fillies. Rolling Sea ran third in the Grade 3 Arlington Breeders' Cup Oaks last summer and comes off two straight allowance victories at Fair Grounds. And Stormy Destin, who makes her first start for new connections following a private sale, comes off a 5 1/4-length triumph in open allowance company at Oaklawn.

Rolling Sea will offer limited value in the win pool, but looks like a probable winner and is a good horse to single in the multi-race gimmicks.