01/27/2009 12:00AM

Horse of the Year was Curlin's only goal

Email
Horsephotos/NTRA
Trainer Steve Asmussen (left) and owner Jess Jackson share a smile over Curlin's Horse of the Year award.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - In the afterglow of Curlin's second straight Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year on Monday night, his trainer, Steve Asmussen, thought back to exactly one year earlier, when primary owner Jess Jackson announced that Curlin would remain in training after winning the 2007 Horse of the Year title.

"I thought that anything short of this would have been a failure on my part," Asmussen said after the 38th annual Eclipse Awards dinner on Monday night at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

Instead, Curlin went in the record books as a rare two-time Horse of the Year, the first since Cigar in 1995-96. Curlin won five times in seven starts in 2008, his only two losses coming in his lone starts on turf and a synthetic surface. Now that Asmussen has had a chance to digest those results with the benefit of being removed from them for a few months, he said if anyone's to blame for Curlin's losses, it's the trainer.

"You don't get second chances to do things," Asmussen said. "I don't think I did an adequate job preparing him for those races. I don't think he was fit enough for either race. If adequately prepared, he was good enough."

Asmussen picked up his first Eclipse Award as champion trainer, and became emotional during his acceptance speech when recognizing his parents, Keith and Marilyn, for raising two boys who became Eclipse Award winners. Asmussen's older brother, Cash, was the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey in 1979 before embarking on a glorious career in France.

"I can't imagine how proud my parents must be to have two kids grow up in Laredo, Texas, and have them win Eclipse Awards at the highest level," he said after the dinner.

During his acceptance speech, Asmussen singled out assistants Scott Blasi, Darren Fleming, and Toby Sheets, cited the sacrifices made by his wife, Julie, and their three boys, and paid tribute to Parker Buckley, an exercise rider for Asmussen who was killed last summer at Saratoga.

In addition to winning Horse of the Year, Curlin was named champion older male. That award was presented by Cot Campbell, who was joined on stage by Reynolds Bell.

"I am better suited than Reynolds to present older male," the 80-year-old Campbell joked.

The awards dinner clocked in at a lengthy 2 hours and 20 minutes from start to finish, even though master of ceremonies Kenny Rice did his best to quickly move things along. Rice called the Eclipse Awards "the only award show all year long that Mickey Rourke is not nominated to." Making light of the drama surrounding Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown in 2008, Rice said, "None of our presenters have been on steroids since the Preakness."

Several long-winded speeches slowed the pace, though the audience seemed to enjoy the rambling, poignant remarks by Sonny Via, the owner of steeplechase champion Good Night Shirt, and the heartfelt pleas of Richard Goodall, who was honored as handicapper of the year for his victory in the National Handicapping Championship one year ago in Las Vegas.

"We're your customers," Goodall said. "We want to support you. Track management needs to come down once a week, say hello, make sure the pizza is hot, make sure the beer is cold, and make sure the mutuel clerks are smiling." He implored racing's leaders to work with Congress to repeal the taxation on racetrack winnings.

"We'll spend it," Goodall said. "Maybe, god forbid, we'll buy a car with it."

Brereton C. Jones, the owner of 3-year-old filly champ Proud Spell, made light of his upcoming lengthy speech, which didn't turn out to be that lengthy after all. "If you think you're going to give an old ex-governor the thrill of a lifetime and limit him to 60 seconds, you've got another thing coming," said Jones, a former governor of Kentucky. "That's like asking Rush Limbaugh to vote for Barack Obama."

Jackson also referenced Obama when accepting the Horse of the Year trophy, saying, "Please, President Obama, please lower taxes and quit spending money."

"Mr. Jackson, may I offer as a slogan, 'Jess We Can,' " Rice deadpanned.

Jackson made lengthy speeches both times Curlin won, and still seemed embittered by Curlin's loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"Congratulations to the Europeans for coming over and running on a false surface," he said.

Standing ovations were given to Alice Chandler when she received the Eclipse Award of Merit, to trainer Larry Jones when cited for his grace under pressure following the death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby, and to Joe Hirsch, the late Daily Racing Form executive columnist, to whom the evening was dedicated.

Chandler thanked her late father, Hal Price Headley.

"He said, 'Al, if you take care of the horse, it'll take care of you,' and he was right. Daddy, this one's for you," Chandler said.

:: (PDF)