07/17/2008 12:00AM

Polls now open for Curlin campaign


In a racing world where fans often feel they lack any voice, you've got to tip your hat to Curlin's principal owner for running an online poll asking how the colt should complete his season.

"Curlin, 2007 Horse of the Year, is currently training in Saratoga, New York, after a successful test on a grass course where he came in second," says the home page at . "During the downtime, Jess Jackson, majority owner of Curlin, wants to know, Where do you think Curlin should go next?"

The choices, with the voting as of Thursday afternoon, are:

1. Turf campaign - 50 percent

2. Dirt campaign - 32 percent

3. Synthetic campaign - 11 percent

3. Retire him - 7 percent

The way the choices are presented is less than ideal, suggesting that Curlin must campaign on one surface exclusively for the rest of the season, when in fact there are plenty of mix-and-match possibilities. Still, the early returns are interesting on a couple of fronts.

That half the respondents want to see him run on the grass again is slightly surprising, given his solid but somewhat discouraging performance finishing second in the Man o' War Stakes at Belmont last Saturday. The whole choice would have been a lot easier had Curlin run slightly better or worse. Finishing second, between a pair of former Breeders' Cup Turf winners, was just good enough to pique interest in another try, especially among those who subscribe to the theory that Curlin does things better the second time he tries them. (He improved in his second starts at Belmont, Monmouth, and Dubai.)

On the other hand, Curlin's defeat, and his lack of the kind of quickening burst of late speed that wins European grass classics, has made the original notion of sending him to Paris for the Arc de Triomphe seem like a longshot. Curlin is currently being quoted at 16-1 by European bookmakers for the race and would go off even higher if the race were his next start.

Another "grass campaign" option is to keep him on turf but in this country, where even the richest grass races are not as demanding as the Arc. Curlin earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 running second in the Man o' War, and even a slight improvement could put him in the thick of races such as the Arlington Million or Breeders' Cup Turf. The question is whether fans want to see him end his career in the thick of finishes with other nice grass horses, or continue his dominance on the dirt, where he appears to have no peers.

A fall dirt campaign of races such as the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup would align Curlin with many of the better 3-year-old champions of yesteryear who returned at 4, and a year-end jaunt to the Japan Cup Dirt could carve him a unique historical perch for winning the biggest dirt races on three continents.

The other surprise is that only 11 percent of the respondents want to see a "synthetic campaign," which would presumably include the Breeders' Cup Classic, which is being run on synthetic footing at Santa Anita this year. That appears to be the driving issue for why Curlin is not simply being pointed to defend his Gold Cup and Classic titles. The Classic is supposed to be our year-end championship race, but the switch to a synthetic site this year has apparently left 89 percent of fans willing to see him skip it.

This is completely understandable. Fans recall the sight of Curlin's great rival last year, Street Sense, looking like just another mane and tail when he raced on Polytrack, finishing third in the 2006 Breeders' Futurity and second in a blanket finish in the 2007 Blue Grass, against horses he routinely thrashed on dirt tracks. While it's a pure guess who will like Santa Anita's as-yet-uninstalled synthetic surface come October, no one wants to see Curlin end his career in a four-way photo with the likes of Student Council, Go Between, and Tiago in a synthetic Classic.

And let's say Big Brown returns in the pink, winning the Haskell and maybe the Travers as powerfully as he did the Derby and Preakness. Then there's only one race everyone will want to see: Big Brown vs. Curlin - and on a real dirt track, not a synthetic surface where one horse or the other might not be within five lengths of his best form.

I voted for "Dirt campaign" because if Curlin could race on only one surface that's the one where I'd like to see him, doing what he does best. If I could have split my vote, though, I'd have said why not one more domestic grass start this summer, then back to dirt this fall.