09/04/2015 2:40PM

Sparkman: Curlin stages comeback

Justin N. Lane
Keen Ice, a son of Curlin, defeated Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

The offspring of dual leading sire Smart Strike rarely have been noted for their physical beauty. His best son, Curlin, is no exception. He is a big, strong, reasonably correct horse with an impressive shoulder and muscular quarters, and he is sturdy and workmanlike but reminds no one of an Alfred Munnings oil painting.

That was one of the major doubts in the minds of breeders when the two-time Horse of the Year went to stud at Lane’s End in 2009, and a relatively slow start when his first 2-year-olds came to the races in 2012 did nothing to alleviate those fears. Over the last year or so, though, Curlin’s fortunes as a sire have been on the upswing, and he reached a new peak with the upset victory of his son, Keen Ice, in the Travers Stakes on Aug. 29 at Saratoga.

Bred in Kentucky by Lebanese businessman Issam Fares’s Fares Farm, Curlin was purchased as a yearling for only $57,000 by trainer Ken McPeek on behalf of Midnight Cry Stable, a partnership between Kentucky lawyers Shirley Cunningham and William Gallion. That bargain price was partly because of a suspicious ankle X-ray and partly because of his acceptable but uninspiring pedigree.

His dam, the unraced Sherriff’s Deputy, had produced two minor winners from four previous foals, but her sire, Deputy Minister, was one of the great sires and broodmare sires of the era. Sherriff’s Deputy’s dam, Barbarika, by Bates Motel, was a high-class racemare who had won the Grade 2 Johnnie Walker Black Classic Handicap at Gulfstream Park and the Grade 3 Turfway Park Breeders’ Cup Handicap.

Barbarika had produced nothing of note, but she is a half-sister to the Grade 3 Arlington Matron Handicap winner Lucky Lady Lauren, by Carnivalay, and to the stakes-placed Count On Kathy, by Dancing Count, dam of two stakes winners and grandam of the champion 2-year-old filly Countess Diana, by Deerhound, and the multiple Grade 1 winner Exogenous, by Unbridled. There really was not much else in the female family beyond Curlin’s stakes-winning third dam, War Exchange, by Wise Exchange, to make one think this was the pedigree of a high-class racehorse.

Curlin did not race at 2, and McPeek decided to take a break from training and concentrate on his bloodstock agency work, so when Curlin made his first start in a seven-furlong maiden race Feb. 3, 2007, at Gulfstream Park, his trainer was McPeek’s former assistant, Helen Pitts. The Smart Strike colt went off a 2-1 favorite after a series of promising breezes, but he ran like a 1-10 shot. Off smartly, he went right to the lead and set honest fractions of 22.79 seconds, 45.48, and 1:09.88 and kept right on going, drawing out to a 12 3/4-length victory in 1:22.25 despite drifting out greenly in the stretch.

That was a sensational performance under any circumstance and downright incredible for a first-time starter. Purchase offers rolled in accordingly, and agent John Moynihan arranged a sale of 80 percent of Curlin to Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Stables, Satish Sanan’s Padua Stables, and George Bolton.

Transferred to trainer Steve Asmussen, Curlin was equally impressive in his second start, rating just off the pace before quickly overtaking his rivals coming off the turn to win the Grade 3 Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths. Victory in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby was a foregone conclusion after that, and Curlin impressed again with a 10 1/2-length win.

Since Curlin had made only three starts and had not raced at 2, experience was definitely an issue in the usual 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby, and indeed, he endured a difficult trip. Much farther back than his connections wanted early and caught in traffic on the backstretch, he rallied boldly on the final turn but hung fire in the final furlong, finishing third behind the rallying Street Sense and the front-running Hard Spun, beaten eight lengths by the winner.

It seemed unlikely off that race that Curlin could make up that deficit in the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, but he did it. Closer to the pace than in the Derby, Street Sense went by him again at the top of the stretch, but Curlin gathered himself and charged relentlessly to the wire, wearing down the Derby winner to win by a head. With Street Sense absent, Curlin was a heavy favorite for the Belmont, but the brilliant filly Rags to Riches outstayed him to win by a head.

Curlin probably was not as fit as he could have been for the Haskell Invitational two months later and finished third behind Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun but rebounded to beat the champion older horse Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. With Horse of the Year on the line, Curlin dominated a classy field in the Breeders’ Cup Classic over a sloppy track at Monmouth Park, rallying past Hard Spun to win by 4 1/2 lengths, with Street Sense fourth.

With the Dubai World Cup as the objective, Asmussen shipped Curlin to the Persian Gulf early, and he began his 4-year-old season with an easy victory in a handicap at Nad al Sheba before dominating the World Cup. Given plenty of time to recover from the trip to the Middle East, he returned with an easy win in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Jess Jackson harbored dreams of winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with Curlin, but his exploratory trial on grass in the Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes was not a success. Curlin was incapable of running a bad race, but his usual late surge was missing, and he finished second, beaten two lengths by Red Rocks, who had won the Breeders’ Cup Turf two years earlier.

Back on dirt, Curlin scored routine victories in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, but his connections waffled about running him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for a second time because of the synthetic surface at Santa Anita. As he had on turf, Curlin ran courageously but without his usual finish. He ran on at one pace after taking the lead at the head of the stretch, finishing fourth behind the Europeans Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator and his old rival Tiago.

Retired to Lane’s End with record earnings for an American-trained horse of $10,501,800 at an initial fee of $75,000, Curlin was well patronized, but his first yearlings did not generate reciprocal enthusiasm, averaging only $136,780, with the highest-priced at $500,000. Since Curlin had not even raced at 2, it was not too disappointing that none of his first juveniles won stakes at 2, but only one really high-class horse, Palace Malice (Palace Rumor, by Royal Anthem), emerged from his first crop.

Inconsistent but obviously talented at 3, the temperamental Palace Malice won only 2 of 10 starts that year, but that included the Belmont Stakes. Last year at 4, Palace Malice looked like the best horse in the country for much of the season, topped by a brilliant victory in the Metropolitan Handicap, but he missed the Breeders’ Cup and was unable to regain his best form this year.

Nothing of comparable class appeared in Curlin’s second crop, but his third crop, 3-year-olds of 2015, includes three Grade 1 winners to date, with the Acorn Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks winner Curalina (Whatdreamsrmadeof, by Graeme Hall) and the Santa Anita Oaks winner Stellar Wind (Evening Star, by Malibu Moon) joining Keen Ice.

Bred by Glencrest Farm, Keen Ice is the only foal to date out of the once-raced Medomak, by Awesome Again. Glencrest purchased Medomak for just $17,000 at the 2010 Keeneland November breeding stock sale and sold her two years later in foal to Mineshaft for $80,000 at the same sale. Glencrest sold Keen Ice for $48,000 as a weanling at the Keeneland November sale to Chesapeake Bloodstock, which pinhooked him to the 2013 Keeneland September yearling sale, where Jerry Crawford of Donegal Racing purchased him for $120,000.

Bred by Emory Alexander, Medomak is a sixth-generation descendant of the champion racemare Monade, by Klairon, who was imported by Alexander’s grandfather Robert Kleberg of King Ranch in the 1960s. Winner of the Epsom Oaks and Prix Vermeille and second, beaten only a head, in the 1962 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Monade produced only one stakes winner for King Ranch, but her daughters have established a thriving family for Kleberg’s descendants. Remedia, Monade’s daughter by Dr. Fager, is the dam of the Grade 1 winner Too Chic, by Blushing Groom, dam in turn of the champion Queena, by Mr. Prospector, and her Grade 1-winning full sister Chic Shirine. Queena is the dam of the Grade 1 winner Brahms, by Danzig, while Chic Shirine produced the Grade 2 winners Waldoboro and Tara Roma, both by Lyphard, and is the grandam of the Grade 1 winners Verrazano, by More Than Ready, and Somali Lemonade, by Lemon Drop Kid.

Tara Roma’s daughter by Kris S., Wiscasset, was unraced but produced the Grade 3 Salvator Mile winner Coal Play, by Mineshaft, as well as Keen Ice’s dam, Medomak. Keen Ice himself is inbred 3x3 to Deputy Minister, a horse who appears to have been surprisingly under-utilized as an inbreeding target. To date, there have been fewer than 10 group or graded stakes winners worldwide inbred within the first four generations to Deputy Minister, led by the multiple Argentine Group 1 winner Lenovo. Interestingly, Curalina also is inbred to Deputy Minister, in her case 3x4.

Keen Ice is one of Curlin’s 20 stakes winners from 326 foals age 3 and up, a 6.1 percent strike rate that is about average for successful contemporary sires. Like their sire, his progeny tend to improve with maturity, however, and it seems likely that over time that percentage may rise a bit. The Grade 1 victories of his current 3-year-olds have revived Curlin’s stud career, and it is likely that his stud fee, which had fallen to $25,000 last year, will rise again next year when he relocates to Hill ‘n’ Dale, which purchased a 20 percent interest in him in May.

Curlin’s 2015 résumé also includes his first significant 2-year-old colt, namely the recent Grade 2 Saratoga Special winner Exaggerator (Dawn Raid, by Vindication), and in the contemporary bloodstock world, that may well do him as much or more good than his four Grade 1 winners.