11/30/2007 1:00AM

Most talented? Maybe Curlin, maybe not

EmailPHOENIX – This is often a time for reflection, to take inventory of what has happened the previous 11 months. Here is my list of notables for the year.

Best horse – I’m sure Curlin will win the Horse of the Year title, and rightfully so. He beat the Derby winner Street Sense in two of their three meetings, and beat elders the two times he faced them. Some would argue that the Triple Crown races, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders’ Cup Classic are the five most important races for 3-year-olds. Well, Curlin won three of those. Enough said.

But Curlin may not have been the most talented horse I saw. Any argument on the most talented horse of the year has to begin with Invasor. We saw him just twice this year, posting remarkable victories in the Grade 1 Donn and Group 1 Dubai World Cup before injury sadly cut short his career. Also on this list is Midnight Lute. Yes, he got beat in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile last Saturday, but he got a tentative ride, and the winner, Daaher – a darn nice horse himself – was in complete control of the pace from the start.

Best ride – Yes, he got awfully lucky that his path was never blocked and his momentum never halted, but give Calvin Borel all the credit in the world for sticking to the rail and giving Street Sense every opportunity to show he was best the Kentucky Derby. You need luck to win the Derby, but you also need the horse to take advantage.

Best gamble – After it happened it may not have seemed like such a risk, but Todd Pletcher and the owners of Rags to Riches deserve every accolade for giving the marvelous filly a shot at the boys in the Grade 1 Belmont. Her victory was a marvelous display of guts and class by everyone involved. It looks even better now considering she beat Curlin – and look what he went on to do. I guarantee you had Rags to Riches struggled home, been drilled 20 lengths, and knocked out for months by the endeavor, they’d be hanging up Pletcher pinatas and wailing away.

A close second in the best gamble category was running Student Council in the Pacific Classic. After being a disappointment in the Midwest, Student Council was sent to Del Mar to run on the Polytrack, and posted a stunning 23-1 upset.

Best story – This is tough. There are the obvious ones: Rags to Riches beating the boys, Curlin going from maiden to likely Horse of the Year in less than a year, and Street Sense winning the Derby and blowing that whole the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-Kentucky Derby jinx nonsense out of the water. But I’ll split my vote among performances from three veterans – The Tin Man (age 9), Greg’s Gold (age 6) and Shakespeare (age 6) – who all came back from serious injuries to win graded stakes.

Biggest disappointment – In a year that saw the turf distaff division absolutely packed with power, I expected Price Tag to top the pecking order. Trained by Bobby Frankel, Price Tag was sensational winning the Grade 1 Matriarch a year ago, and looked on her way this spring when she won an allowance race with laughing ease. But then she finished second in the Grade 1 Gamely and third in the Grade 2 CashCall Mile, and after that she came up sick. She was pointed for a fall return but it never happened, and she’s now been retired. Also getting consideration in this category were Circular Quay, Pletcher’s very promising 2-year-old of last year who failed to thrive this year, and Jazil, the 2006 Belmont winner who was unable to make a dent on dirt or turf. 

Horse I'd like to own – I’d want to take Curlin, but don’t need the legal headache. I’d love to take Midnight Lute, but wouldn’t that be the equivalent of buying a stock at its highest price?

There’s War Pass, but you have to wonder if he’s the next coming of Spend a Buck – able to carry that wonderful speed – or the next coming of Capote.

So, I would take Daaher. He’s flourished since adding blinkers, and after beating Midnight Lute in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile he now points for the Donn and the Dubai World Cup. Being by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and stamina sire Awesome Again, he should be as good or better at up to 10 furlongs. And in a class that saw such heavyweights as Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday go off to the breeding shed, maybe it’s Daaher who carries on for the crop of 2004.