09/26/2007 12:00AM

Schedule keeps Curlin fresh for Classic

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Bill Denver/Equiphotos
Curlin, who will start in Sunday's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, has raced only once since the Belmont Stakes as he targets a start in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Curlin was on the fast track from the time he was purchased privately following his first start through the Belmont Stakes.

He went right into stakes competition, and raced in all three legs of the Triple Crown, in which he finished third in the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness Stakes, and was second in the Belmont Stakes.

His campaign the second half of the year has been decidedly more deliberate. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, has had one goal in mind since the Triple Crown ended, that being the Grade 1, $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27.

The Classic has determined every move. The fact it is at Monmouth led Asmussen to run Curlin last month in Monmouth's Haskell Invitational, rather than Saratoga's Travers Stakes. Seeking to keep Curlin fresh, Asmussen skipped the Travers to await this Sunday's Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

So, after being on an accelerated learning curve the first part of the year, Curlin will head into the Classic with just two races since the Belmont.

"I think he gets credit for time served," Asmussen said. "If he ran in the Haskell and then ran back in the Travers 20 days later, he'd have been geared up to be at his best for a long time. Having him at his best on the biggest day is what we're trying to do."

Of the many Breeders' Cup races whose preps are being run this weekend, it is the Classic that commands the most attention, with four races of significance.

Curlin will face Lawyer Ron, the nation's best older horse, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The winner of that race, which will be seen live on ESPN, gets an automatic berth to the Classic through the Breeders' Cup's "Win and You're In" program.

Another automatic berth to the Classic will go to the winner of the Grade 1, $500,000 Goodwood Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, where Tiago - the winner of the Santa Anita Derby and Swaps Stakes - will take on older horses for the first time.

But the race that rivals the Jockey Club Gold Cup for interest is the Grade 2, $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic on Saturday at Turfway Park, where Street Sense and Hard Spun - the first two finishers in the Kentucky Derby - will square off.

The other race that could impact the Classic is Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, which is headed by Student Council, winner of Del Mar's Pacific Classic.

Asmussen said the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup worked best as a final prep for Curlin for the Classic because of "the distance of it, the timing of it, and I don't think it'll be a large field."

"I don't think it'll be a roughly run race," Asmussen said. "I want to have him in a position to where he comes out of that race moving forward and looking for him to run better in the Classic."

Curlin has been training at Saratoga in recent weeks. He went to Belmont Park on Tuesday, and next week will head to Keeneland, where he will do his serious training before going to Monmouth days before the Breeders' Cup.

"He's going to train on the Polytrack at Keeneland, which is what we did with him between the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby," Asmussen said. "I don't want to have to worry about Mother Nature. I want to be in a position to apply a little pressure."

Lawyer Ron won both the Whitney and the Woodward at Saratoga. Even though his trainer, Todd Pletcher, often likes to give his horses plenty of time between starts, he said Lawyer Ron "thrives on competition."

"I don't want him too fresh for the Breeders' Cup," Pletcher said. "If I can keep Lawyer Ron winning his next two races, he'll be Horse of the Year. The Breeders' Cup in the past has carried a tremendous amount of weight."

Only a handful of others are expected to take on Curlin and Lawyer Ron, including Political Force and Sun King.

Just three were entered against Street Sense and Hard Spun in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Cup Classic. It is rare to see two horses of that magnitude both show up for their final Breeders' Cup prep at Turfway Park, but it makes sense for both. Street Sense has gone from Polytrack to conventional dirt for his two biggest wins, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby, and Hard Spun won the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway in March.

Carl Nafzger, the trainer of Street Sense, said the logistics of running at Turfway, which is less than a two-hour drive from Street Sense's home track of Churchill Downs, also made the race tempting.

"He goes over, runs, and comes back to his barn that evening," Nafzger said. "Keeping him in his own surroundings until the Breeders' Cup is prominent on our minds right now."

The 1 1/8-mile Goodwood drew a field of 10 when entries were taken Wednesday, including Lava Man, who faltered on Polytrack at Del Mar when sixth in the Pacific Classic last time out. Santa Anita now has Cushion Track, which is the surface over which Lava Man won the Hollywood Gold Cup for the third straight time this past summer.

Doug O'Neill, who trains Lava Man, on Wednesday said he would decide Thursday whether to run in the Goodwood or await the Oak Tree Mile on the turf on Oct. 7. Regardless, O'Neill said Lava Man is not a candidate for the Classic. If he goes to the Breeders' Cup, O'Neill said Lava Man would be considered for the Mile on turf or the inaugural Dirt Mile.

In addition to Lava Man and Tiago, the Goodwood also drew Awesome Gem and Hello Sunday, who were second and third behind Student Council in the Pacific Classic.

Student Council is one of just six runners who were entered Wednesday in the 1 1/4-mile Hawthorne Gold Cup, which has the weakest field of the four Classic prep races this weekend.