10/27/2007 12:00AM

Game, set, and match for Curlin

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Curlin, ridden by Robby Albarado, won the Breeders' Cup Classic by 4 1/2 lengths.
OCEANPORT, N.J. - Curlin, who had not raced before February, completed a sensational, ambitious campaign Saturday at Monmouth Park with an emphatic victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, a win that should clinch for Curlin both Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male.

Curlin ($10.80), ridden by Robby Albarado, came roaring off the turn and collared pacesetting Hard Spun at the top of the stretch, then went on to win by 4 1/2 lengths. He completed 1 1/4 miles on a sloppy track in 2:00.59. Albarado and Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, both got their first Breeders' Cup victories.

Hard Spun held on for second by 4 3/4 lengths, with the longshot Awesome Gem rallying for third. Street Sense, the 5-2 favorite, moved with Curlin on the turn, but then flattened out and finished fourth.

Tiago was fifth and was followed, in order, by Any Given Saturday, Lawyer Ron, and Diamond Stripes.

George Washington broke down badly in his right front leg while trailing in the stretch run, was pulled up at the sixteenth pole, and had to be euthanized right there, in front of the grandstand. Tarpaulins were brought out to shield the crowd from the grim scene, which happened just as Curlin was being brought into the winner's circle to cheers.

The death of George Washington cast a pall at the end of a day that had gone off remarkably well otherwise considering the wet, soggy conditions.

A crowd of 41,781 - the second-smallest in the 24-year history of this event - attended Saturday's Breeders' Cup races, which was the second day of the inaugural two-day Breeders' Cup format. Rain showers from Friday continued into Saturday and were quite heavy at times, leaving the main track sloppy and the turf soft. But shortly after the Distaff, the sun finally got the best of the clouds and bathed Monmouth Park in glorious fall light.

Despite the conditions, the racing largely was formful. Favorites Indian Blessing (Juvenile Fillies) and War Pass (Juvenile) won the first two Breeders' Cup races. Midnight Lute (Sprint) also was favored, and Ginger Punch (Distaff) was the narrow second choice.

On the turf, both Lahudood (Filly and Mare Turf) and Kip Deville (Mile) were mid-priced contenders, and English Channel (Turf) was the second choice to Dylan Thomas, the day's shortest-priced favorite.

The races largely were won by the nation's best-known names, with jockeys Garrett Gomez and Cornelio Velasquez winning twice each. Albarado, Rafael Bejarano, Alan Garcia, and John Velazquez won one race each. Among trainers, Bob Baffert won twice, and the other winning trainers were Asmussen, Rick Dutrow Jr., Bobby Frankel, Kiaran McLaughlin, Todd Pletcher, and Nick Zito.

The Classic was considered a showdown for Horse of the Year because all the leading contenders for the prize were in the race, including Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, top 3-year-olds Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun, and the nation's best older horse, Lawyer Ron.

Curlin's resume included victories in the Preakness Stakes against Street Sense and Jockey Club Gold Cup against Lawyer Ron. He had raced in nothing but stakes since winning a maiden race in his debut at Gulfstream Park in February, after which he was purchased by a partnership of Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stables, Satish Sanan's Padua Stables, and George Bolton. They purchased 80 percent of Curlin from his original owners, the Midnight Cry Stable of William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr., who retained a 20 percent interest.

Curlin finishes the year with 6 wins in 9 starts. He also won the Arkansas Derby, was third in the Kentucky Derby, and second in the Belmont.

One of the only questions regarding Curlin entering the Classic was his aptitude at Monmouth Park, since he had finished third in the Haskell Invitational here during the summer to Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun. But his performance in the Classic indicated that his flat race in the Haskell might have been due to knocking off the rust following the Triple Crown, in which he and Hard Spun were the only two horses to compete in all three legs.

The doubts, however, caused Curlin to be the fourth choice of nine in the Classic.

Hard Spun, as expected, took the lead in the Classic and led the field through fractions of 23.11 seconds, 45.85, 1:10.67, and 1:35.86. Curlin and Street Sense were alongside one another, sixth and seventh early, for the first six furlongs.

As the field moved around the far turn, Curlin began his rally. Still outside of Street Sense, he moved inside of a tiring Lawyer Ron and set his sights on Hard Spun. Curlin took the lead just inside the three-sixteenths pole and drew off.

Asmussen said Curlin is a special racehorse "to accomplish what he has accomplished, in the length of time he had to get to this level."

From unraced maiden to Horse of the Year, in less than nine months.