07/13/2008 11:00PM

Curlin's turf experiment hits 'Rocks'

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Red Rocks, under jockey Javier Castellano, leads Curlin (right) and Better Talk Now (center) in deep stretch in Saturday's Man o' War.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The Curlin turf experiment is not necessarily over, but it suffered a blow Saturday when the 2007 Horse of the Year finished second to Red Rocks in the Grade 1, $500,000 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park in his grass debut.

He didn't run poorly, and the horse who beat him won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Turf. It simply wasn't everything that trainer Steve Asmussen and majority owner Jess Jackson had hoped for.

They were looking for an effort in the 1 3/8-mile race to propel Curlin on to France and an assault on the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October.

What they got instead were a lot of unanswered questions. Did Curlin not embrace the turf? Was he done in by a weirdly run race following a poor break when he hit the gate? Or should he return to the main track, where he has won five straight, including four Grade 1's?

The answers will become clearer over the next week.

"That was a good test for where he is at this point," Jackson said. "It makes our decision harder because he didn't win. He didn't seem to have that kick that he usually has.

"But he was still Curlin, and he's still a champion. Now we have to weigh whether we go turf or not. He is one notch below where I expected him to be right now."

Curlin got a warm reception from the crowd of 8,428, both in the paddock and when he returned to be unsaddled.

Instead of having a postrace celebration, Jackson headed off to huddle with Asmussen, trying to unravel what went wrong and where they should go from here.

"We'll talk it over and see how he comes out of it," Jackson said. "It will probably be a week or so before we see how he rebounds. I think he needs another turf test to test whether he's good. That's my feeling, but we'll see what Steve says. If we don't go turf, we know what he can do on the dirt. He didn't embarrass me or himself."

The race unfolded with Mission Approved and Sudan hooking up in suicidal speed duel. Red Rocks settled third behind the leaders with Curlin fourth. On the final turn, Red Rocks ($14.40) got the first jump, and that proved decisive as he prevailed by two lengths.

Javier Castellano was aboard for British-based trainer Brian Meehan as Red Rocks made another successful incursion to the U.S., this time wearing blinkers for the first time in his career.

"He hasn't been given the kudos he deserves since he won the Breeders' Cup," Meehan said. "Today, he confirmed he is one of the best middle distance horses in the world - and he has been for the last two or three years."

Better Talk Now got third followed by Sudan, True Cause, Grand Couturier, and Mission Approved.

The time was 2:12.60 on the firm turf.