- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2007

Because of the mile-and-a-half distance and because it will be his colt’s third race in five weeks, trainer Steve Asmussen doesn’t know how Curlin will finish in today’s Belmont Stakes.

But he absolutely knows how he wants to start.

“I would love to see a great, clean start and him carrying [jockey] Robby [Albarado] along instead of Robby having to ride him the whole way,” Asmussen said.

Curlin had traffic problems in the Kentucky Derby that shuffled him back to 13th entering the first turn (he rallied to finish third) and spotted the field several lengths when he stumbled coming out of the gate in the Preakness (he regrouped to defeat Street Sense by a head).

If Curlin gets a clean start, a good pace up front and shows the closing kick he exhibited in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, it could be curtains for his six competitors.

“We could be hailing Curlin as a super horse,” Hard Spun trainer Larry Jones said. “He has that potential. He’s a special, special horse. To reach the plateau of racing he has reached in such a quick amount of time, that’s special. And I do think he could keep improving.”

Curlin has done little wrong this year, winning four times in five starts. He is the 6-5 morning line favorite for today’s Belmont Stakes. With no Triple Crown on the line and the absence of a third duel between Street Sense, Curlin and Hard Spun, the 139th Belmont lacks pizzazz.

But don’t call this the Anti-Climatic Stakes.

Headlined by Curlin and Hard Spun, the ones to watch include: Rags to Riches, the dominant filly who will try to become the first female to win a Triple Crown race in 19 years and give trainer Todd Pletcher his first classic win; Imawildandcrazyguy, the closer who rallied from last to fourth in the Kentucky Derby and has five weeks of rest; and Tiago, an inexperienced but talented colt who won a Grade I two starts ago.

“There won’t be the crowd there was for the Derby or Preakness, but this still a classic race with two major contenders and some very fresh shooters,” Jones said. “Even though it’s a small field, the ones that are coming are very good.”

Curlin was put into the “very good” category after his Preakness comeback. A colt that didn’t race for the first time until Feb. 3 now is on the cusp of earning more than $2 million in his career.

Much is made about how poorly unraced 2-year-olds have fared in the Kentucky Derby — Apollo was the last in 1882. But horses who were inactive as juveniles don’t have much success in the Belmont, either. According to National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame, should Curlin win, he would be the first unraced 2-year-old to do so since 1918 and would be the first to accomplish the feat at the current distance since Tyrant in 1885.

Curlin’s sire didn’t win past 1 1/16 miles so he’ll have to debunk that myth with a stalking trip behind Hard Spun and Slew’s Tizzy.

While Albarado has been aboard Curlin for all five of his starts, Hard Spun gets a new rider in Garrett Gomez, who replaces Mario Pino. Hard Spun has pedigree on his side — his dam, Turkish Tryst — won at a mile-and-a-half. Even though Jones wants Gomez to be patient, expect Hard Spun to be forwardly placed, possibly behind the expected front-runner, Slew’s Tizzy.

“Curlin and Street Sense, with the help of Hard Spun, had a legitimate pace to run at and make their close kick effective,” Jones said. “At a mile-and-half, you won’t see the first half mile going 45 seconds and change and you’re definitely not going to see 1:09 and change for the first three quarters. That, in turn, will enable everybody to finish stronger.”

Last year’s Belmont saw an opening half-mile of 47.20 seconds and an opening three quarters of 1:12.

“We see a lot of reasons why this horse will do the mile-and-a-half,” Jones said. “He goes that far every day. He just has to do it faster [today]. Hopefully we’ll get a workable pace and not give Curlin, Tiago and Imawildandcrazyguy a target to shoot at.”

Imawildandcrazyguy finished fourth in the Derby at 29-1. Trainer Bill Kaplan always has maintained the gelding was made to run the Belmont distance because of his closing style. He was 24 lengths back (and in last place) after the opening quarter mile of the Derby.

“This is the spot — we would have come here no matter how we did in the Derby,” Kaplan said. “He’s an endurance specialist. In the Derby, he showed his [talent] as a true closer.”

Running in mid-pack will be Rags to Riches. Pletcher has eyed the Belmont since his filly — a $1.9 million purchase in Sept. 2005 — won the Kentucky Oaks by 41/4 lengths on May 4. The last filly to win a Triple Crown race was Winning Colors in the 1988 Derby.

“We’re in this because we think we have a chance to win,” Pletcher said. “We have to hope that the five weeks between races, the pedigree that she has the five pounds we’re getting maybe swings things our way. We’re going to need everything to go just right and then some.”

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