10/15/2008 12:00AM

Equine Brad Pitt is a loner


ARCADIA, Calif. - The observation was made the other day by a reasonably sober onlooker that you don't need to know a whole lot about horseflesh to recognize Curlin as something special.

He had a point.

Horses, being a sum of their parts, hang together in a variety of ways. The most successful breeders and buyers through the years will offer a laundry list of particulars cloaked in suitably arcane terms - scope, leg, bone, eye - covering just about everything but the potential to shuffle cards and deal. Their message, though, is clear. Mechanical composition plays a significant role in the ability of a Thoroughbred to perform.

The rest of us are stuck with aesthetics, and often we get it wrong. Pretty horses stand out until proven too frail to carry our support. Ordinary-looking nags surprise us by winning Jockey Club Gold Cups and Santa Anita Handicaps.

The least imposing great horse of the last half-century was Spectacular Bid, who was draped in blotchy gray and had the demeanor of a dozing night watchman. He also had at least three accelerations to call upon in any given race. Spectacular Bid was a triumph of mechanical composition, but he could have used a makeover.

Curlin, on the other hand, has proven to be the complete package - mechanics, aesthetics, demeanor - basically Brad Pitt with a mane and tail. To paraphrase the saying, colts want to be like him, fillies want to be with him (they will get their chance). It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Curlin, for all his noble attributes, is not the most sociable cat in the pack. Asked what role Curlin might play in the wild, as part of a herd, trainer Steve Asmussen gave it a second of thought and replied:

"I'm not so sure he'd want anything to do with the herd."

Asmussen recognized long ago that Curlin has a streak of edgy, loner mentality that has required quiet, steady management. Curlin appears to treat his keepers with lofty disdain, tolerating them only because they bring him food. Any pony other than his loyal sidekick Pancho, the big white one, is roundly abused. Curlin spends long stretches gazing out the window at the back of his stall, thinking about . . . what?

"I don't believe we're meant to know," Asmussen said. "I think we should be grateful that he even chooses to compete."

Asmussen, who heads the largest single training organization in North America, reserves a mixture of pride and amazement for this particular animal.

"Constant amazement," he corrected. "And to have him come through it all so well, after all we've asked him to do, to make 10 million dollars. It's like nothing I've ever seen, or could imagine."

Curlin's workout on Monday between races at Santa Anita was exceptional on many levels. He jazzed the local media with his post meridian appearance, affording them a chance to see him exercise at an accommodating hour of the day. The holiday fans in attendance were hushed through the initial stages of the work and then roused to applause at the end. Horsemen scattered through the stands put their clocks to Curlin's rein-dangling display and were impressed.

"He did that easy," sighed trainer Howie Zucker, watching from midstretch. "Easy as pie."

Later, back at Barn 27, another level of observation took place. Scott Blasi, Asmussen's senior assistant, hopped off Pancho and zeroed in on Curlin's post-work behavior. After dealing with Curlin nearly every day for the last 21 months, Blasi has the baseline data to read the colt like a book.

The readings after this particular exercise were profoundly important. Curlin was working in company over the engineered Pro-Ride surface for the first time. The following day was the deadline for pre-entries for the Breeders' Cup Classic, for which Curlin is the defending champ. There was no room for error in the interpretation of the work.

"He drank the same amount of water that he would have after a dirt work," Blasi said. "After he worked on the turf," in preparation for his second-place finish in the Man o' War at Belmont in July, "he drank a lot more water. He seemed to put a lot more into that work."

Conversely, Blasi noted, had Curlin sucked up less water than he does for a similar work on dirt, the interpretation would be different. But he didn't. Curlin, who has handled the racing surfaces of Oaklawn, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Belmont, Monmouth Park, and Dubai with equal aplomb, was just as cool with Pro-Ride.

"This work was every bit as good as his seven-eighths before he went to Dubai," Blasi added. "You won't see a better one."

Owner Jess Jackson has not ruled out racing Curlin next year at 5, but let's be real. Chances are remote. Cigar raced at 6 for Allen Paulson, but he didn't really get started until he was 4. Skip Away competed at 5 for Carolyn and Sonny Hine, but that was primarily to right the wrong of losing the Horse of the Year vote the previous year, to Favorite Trick.

It must be assumed, by all reasonable measures, that this will be the last week of Curlin's historic career. If it is, go see him once more. The track opens at 4:45 a.m. Curlin goes out around dawn.