11/18/2008 1:00AM

It's always tough to see great ones go


First he was going to race next year, perhaps. Then he was going to run once more this year, maybe. Now, with few if any options left, Curlin is all but retired, although owner Jess Jackson can be forgiven for wishing that the music would never end.

It must be hard to let go, to climb down from the giddy heights of campaigning America's best, most consistent racehorse for two solid seasons. And let there be no doubt. Curlin was worth every conference call, every speculation, every dangled possibility of where he might run next. In an era of one-hit wonders, this horse was the real deal, and probably ready and willing to do it again as a 5-year-old if the bitter economics of the business did not get in the way. Curlin laid his big, gorgeous body down every time he ran, under all manner of circumstance, leaving behind a trail of loyal admirers to go along with an impressive pile of beaten opposition.

Curlin's people liked to point out that their hero did things never done before, and they have a point, even though that description fits most of the great ones.

Until Kelso came along, no other horse had raced so well for so long and earned so much money. Until Affirmed came along, no horse could boast three such comprehensively superior seasons at ages 2, 3, and 4. Until Cigar came along, no horse had won so many consecutive races against all comers at the top of the game and carried his form halfway around the world and back again, while earning record sums.

And yes, until Curlin came along, no other horse ever commenced his 3-year-old season as a maiden, emerged the star of an unforgettable Triple Crown series, added the Breeders' Cup Classic, and then raced to even greater heights and record earnings as a 4-year-old by winning in Dubai, Kentucky, and New York.

Jackson, trainer Steve Asmussen, assistant Scott Blasi, and the others in Curlin's circle are not alone. Anyone connected to a horse at such a level must deal with the final act. Bill Mott, who trained Cigar to consecutive championships as North American Horse of the Year and most of his $9.9 million in earnings, especially sympathizes with Asmussen, who managed Curlin through 10 wins in 15 starts and almost $10.5 million worth of purses.

"He'll have to rediscover life after Curlin," Mott said. "And life does go on. But it's certainly a big letdown."

It did not help that Curlin lost his last race, when he was fourth in his defense of the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. Mott's been there, too, suffering through Cigar's close third in his final appearance, the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic at Woodbine.

"We'd had that kind of feeling before, when he came to the end of his winning streak at Del Mar," Mott said, referring to Cigar's loss in the '96 Pacific Classic after 16 straight wins. "But the Breeders' Cup was a little different, since it was his last start. That makes it a tough way to go out."

In the end, there was nowhere left for Curlin to run, at least not this year, to erase the taste of the Breeders' Cup. As Asmussen noted, "there was no race worthy of Curlin," and he was right.

Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew could have left the stage at the end of his 4-year-old season after his narrow loss to Exceller in an operatic running of the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup and no one would have complained. Still, it didn't feel quite right to his owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill, which is why Seattle Slew showed up 28 days later at Aqueduct in the Stuyvesant Handicap, a race not known for attracting a horse of such repute.

"Of course, we didn't know at the time he'd go on to be the sire he turned out to be," said Mickey Taylor. "We just wanted to go out on a winning note, more for his sake than anything, for those times when someone would call up and want to know about his last race. At least he went out in a big way, and it was an amazing feat."

No question. Seattle Slew cruised to a joyous, daylight victory in the Stuyvesant, while carrying 134 pounds and Angel Cordero.

Carolyn Hine would have loved such an opportunity for Skip Away, especially in the wake of his sixth-place finish in his 38th and final race over a surface he detested in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Skip Away already had earned $9.6 million for Hine and her husband, trainer Sonny Hine, who found the unraced gray colt as a gift for his wife. Sonny Hine died in March 2000.

"A horse like Skip opens up a lot of doors you've never been through," Carolyn Hine said this week from her home in Florida. "I loved every second, and I treasure the memories. But you've got to realize one thing - the horse is the star, never the owner. I couldn't put in dollars and cents the pleasures this horse gave me."

Skip Away now stands at Hopewell Farm in Kentucky. Hine visits him when she can.

"I'll tell you what was really tough, and I can picture it like it's happening now," Hine said. "It was the last time Skip would be galloping on the track, before his last race. I started crying so hard, I didn't think I'd breathe again. It was so tough.

"Do me a favor," Hine added. "Tell Jess Jackson to please come see me this winter at Gulfstream. I have a box. I would love to share with him some wonderful stories about Skip Away. And I'd love to hear his stories about Curlin."