If you thought the Apollo mission ended in the 1970s after several trips to the moon, think again. By virtue of his runaway victory in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn Park, Curlin emerged as the favorite for the May 5 Kentucky Derby, quite an accomplishment for a colt who had not even raced before Feb. 3. Now, a year after Barbaro ended one of the Derby's seemingly iron-clad handicapping angles, Curlin will try to smash another one that has lasted 125 years.
Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse won the Derby without making a start at 2. Curlin will try to end that streak, while making only the fourth start of his career.
What a meteoric career it has been. Curlin defeated maidens at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3 for trainer Helen Pitts, was sold privately soon thereafter and transferred to trainer Steve Asmussen, won the Rebel Stakes on March 17, then came back and captured the Arkansas Derby.
On a day when the focus initially was on Street Sense and Great Hunter facing off in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Curlin emerged as the talk of racing.
Curlin got a Beyer Speed Figure of 103, 10 points higher than the figure earned by Dominican for his thrilling nose victory over Street Sense in the Blue Grass. On Monday, Curlin was flown to Keeneland, where he will train until heading over to Churchill Downs for his final preparations.
Asmussen said Curlin would probably have his first post-Arkansas Derby breeze at Keeneland. "Then we'll sit down and decide if we'll send him over to Churchill then or when or what," he said.
In the Arkansas Derby, Asmussen said Curlin most impressed him with "how he acted and how professional he was."
"He went straight to the wire," Asmussen said. "Everything that you were concerned about him doing better, he did better. It was beautiful and it was a better race than the Rebel."
As for trying to end Apollo's streak, Asmussen said, "It does not seem to be deterring anybody's money.
"I noticed he's the favorite for the Derby now," he said. "They don't seem too worried about it, either."
At a post-race news conference Saturday, Asmussen said: "I've heard quite a bit about Apollo the last couple of years. We're going to rename our pony so they'll think we're talking about him.
"I'd rather take the one without the experience that is fast enough," he added.
If Curlin is successful in becoming the first horse to win the Derby without having raced at 2 since 1882, he will follow by one year the feat of Barbaro, who became the first horse in 50 years to win the Derby off a layoff of five weeks or more.
Only two horses who chased Curlin on Saturday are scheduled for a rematch in the Derby. Storm in May, who finished second, and Delightful Kiss, who was fourth, both were sent to Churchill Downs on Monday. Storm in May has sufficient graded stakes earnings to make the Derby field if more than the maximum 20 horses are entered May 2, but Delightful Kiss will need some defections from those above him on the earnings list.
Deadly Dealer, Flying First Class, and Officer Rocket are off the Derby trail, their trainers said, though trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Flying First Class could be considered for the second leg of the Triple Crown, the May 19 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
At Keeneland, where the frigid weather, as jockey agent Ron Anderson said, was "terrible bad," the Blue Grass stretch run was smoking. The first four finishers were within a half-length of one another at the wire, and the first five – Dominican, Street Sense, Zanjero, Teuflesberg, and Great Hunter – all are scheduled to come back in the Derby.
Dominican is now 3 for 3 on Polytrack, with two wins at Keeneland and one at Turfway Park. He had a large gathering of well wishers – including trainer Darrin Miller, and owners Tommy and Bonnie Hamilton – admiring him outside his stall two hours after the Blue Grass, as a steady rain fell amidst the gloaming.
Miller said Dominican would train at Keeneland until Derby week neared. Miller is a big supporter of Polytrack, and believes racing over that surface, rather than conventional dirt, will prove beneficial following a hard stretch run like the Blue Grass.
"Maybe because it's kinder, it allows a horse to recover quicker," Miller said. "Horses can run hard on it and come back."
Miller also trains Sedgefield, who was second in the Lane's End Stakes before finishing fourth on turf in the Transylvania. Miller said he would not make a decision regarding Sedgefield's status for the Derby for another week.
The merits of the Blue Grass will be endlessly debated over the next three weeks. It was a strangely run race in which the pace was achingly slow and then the runners blasted home the final three furlongs, much like a European grass race.
"That's got to go down as the stupidest Grade 1 race ever," said Carl Nafzger, trainer of Street Sense. "I was saying, 'What's going on here?'"
How that translates to the Derby over conventional dirt at Churchill Downs is one of the many factors handicappers will have to assess. But for Nafzger, he is happy to be going back to Churchill Downs.
"I think Dominican's best lick is there, and my best is here," Nafzger said Monday from Churchill Downs, where he is based.
Nafzger said Street Sense went back to the track Sunday and jogged one mile – an unorthodox move that Nafzger has sworn by for years – and would walk a couple of days before going back to the track to train later this week.
Zanjero and Teuflesberg both will need new riders for the Derby. Garrett Gomez rode Zanjero, but has committed to ride Any Given Saturday in the Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher. Teuflesberg was ridden by Edgar Prado, who will ride Scat Daddy in the Derby. Jamie Sanders, trainer of Teuflesberg, said Stewart Elliott would regain the mount.
Corey Nakatani will stick with Great Hunter for the Derby. Doug O'Neill, who has Great Hunter and Derby prospects Cobalt Blue and Liquidity, said Monday that Victor Espinoza would ride Cobalt Blue, and David Flores would be on Liquidity.
- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini