03/30/2008 11:00PM

Powerful pair could shape '08


NEW YORK - It must be good these days to be Steve Asmussen or Rick Dutrow. Or Michael de Kock, too. Last Saturday, Asmussen, who already had one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, won the world's richest race. Dutrow had three starters in three races with seven-figure purses on opposite ends of the globe and won them all. De Kock won a $5 million race, sent out the one-two finishers in a $2 million race, sent out a horse who was a narrowly beaten third after being much the best in another $5 million race, and finished second to Asmussen in the world's richest race.

The victories by Curlin (trained by Asmussen) in the $6 million Dubai World Cup and Big Brown (trained by Dutrow) in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park reverberated so strongly that it is not an overstatement to suggest these horses have the power to shape our 2008 season.

As reigning Horse of the Year, Curlin already had authority. But his domination of the World Cup by a record margin of almost eight lengths - his fourth straight win and eighth in 11 career starts - seemed to propel him to a higher level. Curlin was supposed to win the World Cup, but unlike many horses in similar positions, he did much more than merely get the job done.

Perhaps more impressive, aside from his winning for the second time in a month in Dubai without race-day medication, was the speed Curlin showed. Unlike the colt who last year came from 13 lengths out to get up in the Preakness and from 10 lengths back to romp in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Curlin was right on the pace Saturday. Granted, the pace might not have been that fast; it couldn't have been if the stretch-running American A. P. Arrow was a close fourth in the early running. But this new dimension makes Curlin an even more dangerous force.

The big question now is, will he be able to do what so many good American-based horses could not - reproduce his best form back home in a somewhat timely fashion? History says it's a daunting task. But maybe as brilliant as he is, and because he is the first American horse to approach the World Cup by having a Dubai prep beforehand, he will have a better chance. Either way, the American racing public, not to mention opposing horsemen, will be hanging on every development.

Beyond that, it's unclear what shape Curlin's campaign back home might take. We still don't know what kind of surface this year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita will be run on. But if it is run on a synthetic track, a surface Curlin has yet to encounter, you would expect Asmussen to find his colt a synthetic-track prep. And that would certainly have a trickle-down effect on the schedules of opposing horses.

As for Big Brown, the last of Dutrow's three big winners Saturday (the others were Diamond Stripes in the $1 million Godolphin Mile and Benny the Bull, a major player in the U.S. sprint division, in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen), his status as a potential superstar came on quickly. Yes, Big Brown won big on turf in his only start last year, and yes, he won big in an off-the-turfer over four manes and tails in his first start this year. But that didn't prepare us for his awesome performance Saturday.

Not only did Big Brown become the first to win at Gulfstream breaking from the 12 hole going 1 1/8 miles on the main track since it was reconfigured four years ago - and become the first horse of the current meet to win such a race from post 8 or higher - he did so with such incredible style that many now think he could be favored in the Kentucky Derby over Pyro, who happens to be trained by Asmussen. Big Brown set a pace so fast that the deeper we got into the Florida Derby, the more it seemed certain he would stop. He drew away like a fresh horse, winning off by five, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106, which is huge for this group of 3-year-olds, and leaving such highly regarded contemporaries as Hey Byrn, Majestic Warrior, Fierce Wind, and Elysium Fields far back.

It wasn't that long ago that a colt winning the Kentucky Derby off only three starts would have been laughed at. But things have changed. Two years ago, Barbaro became the first in 50 years to win the Derby having not raced in five or more weeks, and last year Street Sense became the first in 23 years to win the Derby off only two preps at 3. Considerations such as these don't seem to matter in the Derby as much as they used to. Sheer talent has taken precedence. And Big Brown clearly has plenty of that.

Quick thoughts on other weekend stakes action:

* I don't think Shes All Eltish's win in Saturday's Bonnie Miss on the Florida Derby undercard, despite how big it was, has Country Star or Proud Spell shaking in their boots.

* If Saturday's Tokyo City Stakes at Santa Anita - a narrow upset by Niagara Causeway - really is the start of the road to the new Breeders' Cup Marathon, then for many of us, it will take a higher level of competition to establish the division.