For a smart guy, Jess Jackson sure is being dumb about the Breeders' Cup. For the sport, for his horse, for Jess Jackson's wallet, this is the easiest decision anyone has ever had to make: run the horse in the Classic.
There's no reason not to, and the one he keeps coming up with is nonsense. To race over a synthetic dirt surface isn't that big of a deal. It's not scaring off Big Brown and it won't scare off dozens of other horses that will ship to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup even though they've never competed over an artificial surface. With very few exceptions, most horses will run just as well on dirt as they do on a synthetic track and vice versa.
Besides, champions handle obstacles; they don't run from them. Curlin is too good a horse to be pampered or to run only in spots where he doesn't have to deal with a few uncertainties. They were willing to try the grass. Why aren't they willing to try a synthetic surface?
Perhaps Jackson will come to his senses, but if he doesn't he'll be making a colossal and puzzling mistake. Curlin—and not Big Brown—is the horse to beat in the Classic. Normally, a great 3-year-old can't beat a great older horse. In two of the most important fall showdowns ever, 3-year-old Affirmed lost to 4-year-old Seattle Slew in the 1978 Marlboro Cup. A year later, a 4-year-old Affirmed beat a 3-year-old Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
All things being equal, Curlin has a big edge on Big Brown because he is older, and I'm not sure all things are equal. Of the two, Curlin, at least on paper, looks like the better, faster horse. Big Brown has never run better than a 109 Beyer, while every one of Curlin's dirt races since the 2007 Jockey Club Gold Cup have been awarded a Beyer figure of 110 or higher.
By winning the Classic, Jackson would pocket the $3 million that goes to the winner and guarantee that Curlin is Horse of the Year. Should he pass the Classic and should Big Brown win the race, Jackson will have blown any chance his horse has of being Horse of the Year. By passing the Classic, he is risking tarnishing Curlin's legacy. He'll be remembered less as the horse who won major races like the Preakness, 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup than the horse who ducked Big Brown.
And what about the good of the sport? Among the many odd things about the situation is that, with this one glaring exception, Jackson has proven to be a great sportsman. By bringing Curlin back as a 4-year-old, something few others would have done, he proved that he is willing to put the game's best interests first. He's also been an important and vocal voice for greater integrity in the sales ring and has called upon racing to get serious about its drug problems.
Yet, now he is the only thing standing between what would be the most intriguing and compelling racing showdown in decades. It's something everybody in the sport wants to see and something the game needs. Curlin-versus-Big Brown turns the Breeders' Cup Classic into a mega-event that even non-racing fans will want to see and a media that seems to have forgotten that horse racing exists will gobble up.
Earlier this summer, Jackson has suggested that a Curlin-Big Brown showdown take place in either the Woodward or the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which is next on the schedule for Curlin. You can certainly argue that the Big Brown team should have picked one or both of those prestigious races for their horse rather than a nine-furlong grass race at Monmouth that was created solely for the purpose of bringing the popular Kentucky Derby winner to the Jersey Shore.
But in what has sometimes been a testy war of words between the two camps, Big Brown co-owner Michael Iavarone has made the most sense.
"The race you're supposed to run in is the Breeders' Cup Classic," he said last month. "That's where the best horses in the world come together to decide Horse of the Year, not in the Woodward in a four-horse field."
He's absolutely right. The proper setting for a Curlin-Big Brown showdown is, whether the race is run on dirt, a synthetic track or over broken bottles, the Breeders' Cup Classic. Only one person stands in the way of making that happen. One can only hope that Jess Jackson does the right thing.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at email@example.com.