Foes line up to challenge Curlin
ARCADIA, Calif. -- Curlin's looming presence in Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic hardly scared away the competition.
Undefeated Casino Drive from Japan, along with European stars Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator and Raven's Pass, are among the 11 rivals who will line up to try to knock off the reigning horse of the year.
"Someone has got to come and take him on. We can't all be wimps and hide," said John Gosden, who trains Raven's Pass, the 6-1 second choice.
Staging the Breeders' Cup on a synthetic surface for the first time at Santa Anita helped lure some horses who may not have run in the 1 1/4-mile Classic had it been contested on traditional dirt.
Raven's Pass is one of them. He made the first 11 starts of his career on turf in Europe, most of them in top-level mile races.
"I wouldn't be running in the Classic if it was still on the dirt," Gosden said. "The problem with the dirt is not the surface you're going on, it's the kickback. European horses have never, ever, ever suffered kickback in their face. It will put you right out of your stride."
Curlin, last year's Classic winner, is most experienced on dirt, where he's 9 for 12. He has one career start (a loss) on turf and none on synthetics. That didn't prevent him from being tabbed as the early 7-5 favorite after drawing the No. 9 post in the 12-horse field.
"It's a decent spot and gives him plenty of time to the first turn. Robby should be confident enough to get him into position early," trainer Steve Asmussen said Wednesday, referring to jockey Robby Albarado.
Duke of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator are both 10-1 on the Classic's morning line. They would have been among the favorites in the Turf -- which always attracts European horses -- and the Mile, but trainer Aidan O'Brien targeted them for the biggest money race.
"If Duke and Henry were still standing at this stage, we were always going to let them have a shot at the Classic," he said. "Obviously, they've had both very long, busy seasons, but they seem to be fine."
Duke of Marmalade won five consecutive races under jockey John Murtagh before finishing seventh in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Europe's biggest race, on Oct. 5.
"Duke of Marmalade is one of those horses who likes a strong tempo through the race," O'Brien said. "He's another horse that likes fast ground. He's very dour and very tough, a good cruiser with a great constitution. If he gets a good break and gets a good position, he'll be tough."
Like Curlin, Henrythenavigator will be trying the Pro-Ride surface for the first time in what will be his first attempt at running 1 1/4 miles. He was second to Raven's Pass in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Sept. 27.
"He has loads of speed," O'Brien said. "One thing that is very important is that Henry is one of those horses who likes to get up on his toes when he gallops. When people or horses are like that they are very nimble and very quick. When the ground is slow, they're inclined to be down flat."
Murtagh is the regular rider for both of O'Brien's entries, but he chose Duke of Marmalade in the Classic, so John Velazquez will be aboard Henrythenavigator.
"It'll be a battle royal," Murtagh said. "To come to America and win the Classic, for a European rider, it would be special."
The European horses cleared quarantine yesterday and made their first visits to the synthetic track. Aboard a pony, O'Brien led his eight in a parade from the quarantine barn to supervise their canters.
Across town at Hollywood Park, 3-year-old Casino Drive was following his own unique training pattern, running five furlongs on the synthetic Cushion Track in a time that wasn't fast enough to be listed among the morning workouts.
"He went too slow, like an open gallop," track clocker Russell Hudak said. "He was going a two-minute clip."
That's just what the Japanese wanted, explained racing manager Nobutaka Tada.
"It was perfect," he said. "We wanted to let him feel well. He's fit enough."
Casino Drive is coming off a victory in an allowance race at Santa Anita on Oct. 12. He'll break from the No. 2 post.
"This horse can do anything," Tada said. "He is adjustable to any situation."
Casino Drive will train at Hollywood Park again today before being vanned to Santa Anita.
Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel has his own reasons for sending Champs Elysees against Curlin: The British-bred has made all but one of his 19 career starts on the turf.
"Imagine if he wins that race. He's already got a Grade 1 win on the grass, so if he wins one he's worth a fortune," Frankel said. "He's the best bred horse in America. He's a half-brother to four Grade 1 winners (including Breeders' Cup winners Intercontinental and Banks Hill) and his full brother (Dansili) is one of the top sires in Europe."
Still, Curlin is regarded as the horse to beat.
"I think he's a superb horse," Gosden said. "I love the way he travels in a race. He's a very, very superior mile-and-a-quarter, old and tough horse. He sets the benchmark, and he would hold his own in most generations."