- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The one thing people in South Florida weren’t paying attention to the first Saturday in February was a seven-furlong race at Gulfstream Park. The Super Bowl was a day away, the party scene was in overdrive and for those interested in horse racing, the card featured respected 3-year-old Nobiz Like Shobiz and Invasor, the best dirt horse in the world.

But the fourth race, with a purse of $38,000, caught John Moynihan’s attention. A bloodstock agent, Moynihan had been asked by Satish Sanan to scour the racing world for a Kentucky Derby hopeful.

Curlin, a 3-year-old who didn’t race at age 2, debuted with a 123/4-length win. Less than two days later, the colt was sold for a reported $3.5 million after Moynihan got Sanan, George Bolton and Jess Jackson to form a quick partnership.

Today — three months and two wins later — Curlin is the favorite in the 133rd Kentucky Derby.

“I’d rather call it lucky than smart,” Sanan said of the purchase, which was completed when he was on a business trip to his native India. “We had been trying since the early part of last summer to find a good 2-year-old. We watched all the results, looked at the horses, asked all the trainers to see if something would come up with potential. We had looked at almost every other horse there was.”

Curlin was installed as the 7-2 morning-line favorite on Wednesday and will start from the No. 2 post position. The first leg of the Triple Crown carries a $2.21 million purse and post time is scheduled for 6:04 p.m.

A race already full of unknowns could become sketchier if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Rain has fallen the last two days — including an inch before noon yesterday — and there is a 50 percent chance of precipitation today.

Since 1971, there has been measurable rain on Derby Day only five times. Three years ago, .65 inches fell and Smarty Jones won on an off track.

Most trainers think this is a race that could be won by seven horses: Curlin, Street Sense (4-1), Nobiz Like Shobiz (8-1), Circular Quay (8-1), Scat Daddy (10-1), Any Given Saturday (12-1) and Hard Spun (15-1).

Curlin’s forceful wins — three by a combined 281/4 lengths — have made him the deserving favorite. Only two post-time favorites since 1980 (Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Smarty Jones in 2004) have won the Roses. The last two favorites finished seventh.

“As far as pressure, I think there are expectations,” Curlin trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Curlin and the curiosity about him is very understandable. How good can he be?”

Curlin hasn’t defeated the best competition but a win today would vault him into “freak” territory and ignite discussions about him being the next great horse.

Earlier this week, Asmussen compared Curlin to Point Given and Barbaro. Point Given was the beaten Derby favorite in 2001 but went on to the Belmont, Preakness, Haskell and Travers to win Horse of the Year; Barbaro won last year’s Derby by 61/2 lengths.

But before he can jump into Point Given/Barbaro company, Curlin has to defy two long-standing Derby trends: No horse that was unraced as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since 1882; no horse with fewer than four lifetime starts has won the Derby since 1915.

Curlin’s detractors will point out the fact he hasn’t been in enough fights or raced in large fields.

“Disadvantages will be aplenty for horses in this race,” Asmussen said. “I don’t believe the three races or not running as a 2-year-old is any kind of excuse. Mentally and physically, I think he has every bit of a chance.”

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas doesn’t have a horse in the race but saw Curlin in person at the Arkansas Derby.

“I think [seasoning] is overrated,” he said. “Curlin has plenty of seasoning. He had picture-perfect experiences in the Rebel and Arkansas. He’s way beyond a horse with three races of experience. Some of them that will be led over have 10 races that aren’t as seasoned as Curlin. He can sure win.”

In the Arkansas Derby, trainer Bill Kaplan thought his horse, Storm In May, was closing well — he trailed Curlin by only 31/2 lengths entering the final furlong. But then Curlin turned it up another notch and won by 101/2 lengths.

“He runs like a 5-year-old who’s had 25 races,” Kaplan said of Curlin. “He rates perfectly and does what the rider tells him to do.”

But because he’s so inexperienced, there also is a good chance Curlin will react negatively when dirt or mud is kicked in his face or that he’ll be unable to deal with the distance. If that happens, Street Sense is the next best horse in the race although he has some history to deal with — no Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner has won the Derby. Street Sense has won at Churchill (the Juvenile by 10 lengths).

“I think [former jockey] Jerry Bailey said it best: A Juvenile winner hasn’t ever won the Derby, but we’ve always thought it was a heckuva good prep for the Derby, especially when it’s at Churchill Downs the year before,” trainer Carl Nafzger said. “I thought it was an asset that we won over this track. But we still have to win this one.”

Stormello, Teuflesberg and Liquidity are expected to set the early pace and contenders Nobiz Like Shobiz, Any Given Saturday, Scat Daddy and Hard Spun won’t be far behind.

Circular Quay — racing for the first time in eight weeks — is the best closer in the field.

“By him being fresher, instead of being 25 lengths out of it, maybe he’ll be 18 or 20,” said Todd Pletcher, who will saddle five starters to tie a Derby record. “The more he ran as a 2-year-old and judging by his first two starts this year, the more he runs the more lackadaisical he tends to get in the early stages of the race.”

Everything about this Derby, though, rotates back to Curlin, even if he’s not the favorite today. Sanan estimates he has spent $150 million on horses since July 1997, with no Triple Crown race success. He desperately wants that to change today.

“If you look at his pedigree, he has all the makings of a long distance, two-turn horse,” Sanan said. “You take chances. It wasn’t that high of a price if you look at what has been turned down. It’s a lot of money, though.”

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