03/12/2007 11:00PM

Duo's raw talent offsets inexperience

Jeff Coady
Curlin (above) and Flying First Class are so highly regarded that both will jump from the maiden ranks to the Grade 3 Rebel.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Curlin and Flying First Class each showed immense talent winning his maiden in his most recent start. So much so that each was added to the second pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager last weekend. Flying First Class closed at 27-1, and Curlin at 30-1. Saturday, the two will vie for favoritism when they meet winners for the first time in the Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race at Oaklawn Park.

Curlin and Flying First Class come into the Rebel under near-identical circumstances. Neither is proven against stakes competition or going around two turns. They landed in this spot for one simple reason, said Steve Asmussen, who trains Curlin.

"It's ability," he said.

Flying First Class put up the year's highest Beyer Speed Figure for a 3-year-old, a 107, when he led throughout in his second start to win a six-furlong maiden race at Oaklawn Park by eight lengths on Feb. 19. The manner in which he won played a role in convincing his Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, that it was time to move into a race like the Rebel.

"He's seasoned beyond his race record by far," said Lukas. "He's got a beautiful mind. Some horses, that would be a quantum leap to jump into a graded stakes. On other horses, that's probably not too big a jump. He was very, very professional."

Lukas said Flying First Class is mentally tough and stacks up well on talent heading into the Rebel.

"He's not intimidated by other horses," said Lukas. "I've never noticed that he would be intimidated by dirt coming back in his face, some of the usual things that you get with inexperience.

"I don't think I'm giving him anything he can't handle."

Curlin made his career debut at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3, leading throughout for a 12 3/4-length win. He covered the seven furlongs in 1:22.20 and earned a Beyer Figure of 101. The numbers suggest he can step up into a race like the Rebel, said Asmussen, who leads all trainers in wins in North America.

"You're kind of up to speed," he said. "It isn't like you have to find 15, 20 lengths. You're not necessarily looking for him to run faster, you're just putting a few more variables into the equation, quite a few more to tell you the truth, and then we try to prepare him for that."

Asmussen has had Curlin, a son of Smart Strike, in his care a little more than a month. He won his maiden for trainer Helen Pitts, then majority interest in the colt was sold by Midnight Cry Stable to a partnership that includes the Stonestreet Stable of Jess Jackson, Satish Sanan's Padua Stables, and George Bolton. Curlin was then transferred to Asmussen. He has been training at Fair Grounds since the second week of February, and the transition between stables has been seamless, said Asmussen.

"He came into the barn, I walked him a day, had about four gallops, put a easy half in him and went on with it," he said. "His personality allows it. I'm very pleased and impressed with him.

"I was actually at Gulfstream the day that he broke his maiden. I had one in the next race and got to watch him. We're very fortunate a horse of his caliber was moved to us.

"We're expecting good things from him Saturday, but I think that it's just a stepping-stone of who he's going to be."

Curlin came to Asmussen shortly after his top-ranked 3-year-old, Tiz Wonderful, was sidelined with a tendon injury. Tiz Wonderful is undefeated, and dominated the Grade 2 Kentucky Club Jockey Club in November.

"He is hopefully a Tiz Wonderful, as far as just being capable of things other ones aren't," Asmussen said of Curlin. "Just a different level."

Lukas, who has won a record 13 Triple Crown races, can see similarities between one of his past Preakness winners and Flying First Class.

"I tell you who he reminds me of physically is Tank's Prospect, who won the Arkansas Derby and the Preakness," said Lukas. "He reminds me a lot of that horse. He's got the same style. He's big and strong, and even looks a little like him."

Flying First Class is a California-bred son of Perfect Mandate, who races for his breeders, Buddy and Judy Johnston, the owners of Old English Rancho.

For the Rebel, Flying First Class and Curlin will have new pilots. Edgar Prado will ride Flying First Class, and Robby Albarado has the mount on Curlin. As for going two turns in the Rebel, Lukas and Asmussen feel the distance will suit their charges. Flying First Class has started once around two turns, finishing second in his debut last September. The Rebel will be the first two-turn start for Curlin.

"He'll have a way better understanding of it next time than he will this time," said Asmussen.

And come Saturday, a lot more will be known about the potential of these two exciting maiden winners.