08/30/2008 12:00AM

Finally showtime for Curlin at Spa

Barbara D. Livingston
Curlin will make his Saratoga debut in Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Woodward Stakes.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Steve Asmussen said he would be excited to watch Curlin run even if he weren't his trainer. The New York Racing Association hopes the public shares Asmussen's enthusiasm for the reigning Horse of the Year.

After spending two summers training here on a daily basis, Curlin will make his highly anticipated Saratoga debut in Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Woodward Stakes as he begins what could very well be the final three-race stretch of his brilliant career. The final Saturday of the Saratoga meet is usually the least-attended - averaging between 18,000 to 19,000 fans - but NYRA officials are hoping that won't be the case this summer.

"If we saw a spike of 25,000 to 30,000, I'd be ecstatic," said Hal Handel, executive vice president and chief operating officer for NYRA. "I think the fact this is a purist's racetrack and they're reverential about seeing good horses run, [Curlin racing] might mean more up here than any other racetrack."

Curlin hopes to add the Woodward to his victories this year in the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race, and the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. He will take on seven rivals, including Grade 1 winner Divine Park, in the Woodward, a 1 1/8-mile dirt race that shares billing on Saturday's 11-race card with the Grade 1 Forego for male sprinters.

Curlin is the first reigning Horse of the Year to run at Saratoga since Favorite Trick, the 1997 Horse of the Year who won the Jim Dandy and finished fifth in the King's Bishop in 1998.

Curlin stabled here last summer and worked nine times over the Oklahoma training track from July through September, but did not race here. His connections chose the Haskell over the Travers primarily because the Haskell was run at Monmouth Park, where the Breeders' Cup was held three months later. This year's Breeders' Cup is being held at Santa Anita over a synthetic surface, and Curlin is instead being pointed to the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 27 and potentially the Japan Cup Dirt at Hanshin on Dec. 7.

Another reason for avoiding Saratoga was Asmussen's concern that Saratoga's track would not be conducive to Curlin's running style. Asmussen likened Saratoga to Keeneland's old dirt track, which tended to favor front-running horses. Asmussen also had an issue with Saratoga's tighter turns.

"For a track that size, with sharp turns, horses that cut the corner get an extra step when they do," Asmussen said. "Every track has a nuance to it, that's what Saratoga's is."

Now, 4 years old and more experienced, Curlin is more adept racing around turns, Asmussen said. "He's handling so much nicer as far as his turning," he said.

The Woodward will be Curlin's first race since he finished second in the Man o' War at Belmont on turf. Curlin ran a decent race that day, but appears to be doing better entering this race than he was going into that one. Curlin trained at Churchill Downs for the Man o' War.

"Curlin definitely does better in the cooler weather, I think that's why he did so well here last year," said Asmussen's assistant, Scott Blasi, who has been with Curlin every day up here. "It gets pretty hot at Churchill in June, July. He's definitely gone the right way physically."

Curlin will break from post 5 under Robby Albarado in a weight-for-age race where all participants carry 126 pounds. With Divine Park, Past the Point, and Wanderin Boy in the field, there is plenty of speed to allow Curlin to take up his usual spot off the pace.

Divine Park figures to be Curlin's toughest rival. He has won 6 of 8 career starts, including the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handcap on May 26, and has had legitimate excuses in his two losses. In finishing ninth in the Grade 1 Malibu last December, Divine Park was making his first start in nine months and breaking from post 14. In finishing last in the General George at Laurel in February, Divine Park broke through the starting gate before the start.

"We're pretty confident even with Curlin in there that he's going to run a big race," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "He's doing great and we feel like he has us to beat. I don't know who else is in there, but this horse is a top horse and could easily be undefeated."

The 7-year-old Wanderin Boy, trained by Nick Zito, is coming off an excellent allowance win going seven furlongs and has run second to champions Invasor, Bernardini, and Lawyer Ron in Grade 1 races.

"He's been of the best handicap horses year-in and year-out, and he certainly belongs in there," said Zito, whose biggest concern is post 8. "He'll give his all."

Trainer Bobby Frankel entered Out of Control, who has finished second in Grade 1 turf races in his last two starts, including a nose loss in the Manhattan at Belmont on June 7. Frankel had been planning to run Out of Control in the Pacific Classic, but the horse had mucus in his lungs and he didn't want to ship him.

"I've had him ready to run for a while, I just didn't want to put him on a plane and chance that he'd get sick again," Frankel said. "He trains real well on dirt."

Out of Control has a win and a third in two dirt races, and Frankel is changing bits on the horse because of his tendency to lug in a bit.

A. P. Arrow, Loose Leaf, and Dr. D. F .C. complete the field.