08/14/2008 11:00PM

Little hope for clash of stars


Michael Iavarone, whose IEAH Stable is Big Brown's majority owner, and Jess Jackson, Curlin's principal owner, will be seated a few tables apart as they wait to receive awards at Monday night's New York Turf Writers dinner here. So here's the plan: Let's page them both to take emergency phone calls, lure and lock them into a janitor's closet, and not let them out until they agree on a time and place to race their horses against each other.

Unfortunately, even if we kept them there until Travers Day, they're likelier to emerge with a Middle East peace plan or a cure for the common cold than with an agreement for their colts to square off on the racetrack.

There are three possible venues for a showdown, and Curlin's camp gets credit for having announced they'll be there for the first two with or without Big Brown: the Woodward at Saratoga on Aug. 30 and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Sept. 27. Those dates don't suit Big Brown's connections, who want someone to put on a mid-September grass race for their colt as a bridge to and prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic, the race where they say they're willing to face Curlin.

The Classic is the third and in some ways would be the best spot for a showdown - it's the year's biggest purse on its so-called championship day - but Jackson doesn't want to run Curlin in the Classic because the race will be contested on a new synthetic Pro-Ride surface that hasn't even been installed yet.

At least the two camps are getting progressively feisty about the whole thing; never underestimate rancor as a way of getting people together, even if its with murderous intent. As David Grening reported in Friday's Daily Racing Form, Jackson offered a $50,000 donation to Iavarone's favorite charity if Big Brown shows up for the Woodward. Iavarone countered with a $250,000 donation if Curlin comes for the Classic. Jackson reraised with another offer for the Gold Cup. At the moment, it's a stalemate.

The sport wouldn't be having this problem if the Classic were being run on a conventional dirt track: They'd both be there for what might be the most dramatic Classic showdown since Derby winners Ferdinand and Alysheba hooked up in 1987 to decide the Horse of the Year title. But that's an "if" and a wish that reminds me of the saying from my childhood that, in family-newspaper terms, if your grandmother were anatomically different, she'd be your grandfather. She isn't, so she's not, and there's nothing we can do about the surface of this year's Classic short of adding Frank Stronach to the janitor's-closet party until he installs dirt rather than Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. Don't hold your breath.

So should Jackson bend and send Curlin to the Classic, or should Iavarone bend and show up for the Woodward and/or Gold Cup? It will be argued both ways for weeks to come. Jackson will no doubt face intense pressure from the Breeders' Cup board members who are watching their controversial site selection for this year (and next) backfire on them, and from some fans who think you should show up for the Classic even if it's run over crushed coconut shells in Hawaii. Others will say that Big Brown's camp is simply ducking two perfectly good opportunities to prove their minority opinion that theirs is the better colt, and disingenuously proposing the Classic alternative only because they know it's a non-starter. The latter argument sounds more reasonable to me, but it's unlikely Iavarone is going to come around to it.

So how about this: Instead of enlisting Stronach, we find a bigger closet and add Bob Evans, the CEO of Churchill Downs, to the negotiations. The door stays nailed shut until Churchill either enriches the Clark Handicap or puts on a new race in November, a 1 1/4-mile race on genuine soil just like the Kentucky Derby, and both camps agree to run.

The idea may be impractical and fraught with drawbacks. On the other hand, 12 days in a janitor's closet might be the one and only way to produce the one and only horse race that every fan is craving to see.