A lot of recent talk out in the blogosphere about how the NTRA should have aggressively marketed Curlin’s return to the US in yesterday’s Stephen Foster (here’s our friend Dana on the topic).
Well, truthfully, I halfway agree.
I’d have loved to see some real juice behind the return to the races of not one but two champs: Curlin among the boys, Ginger Punch, in the Ogden Phipps at Belmont, among the distaff set. It would have made terrific television, two races in about an hour, plenty of time for race analysis and discussion of how special it is to have two defending champs racing on the same day.
All Curlin has done in recent months is mature into the racehorse his talent suggested he’d become — which is the fun of watching him now — and reel off a five race winning streak. Meanwhile, Ginger Punch has won seven of nine starts since her neck defeat in last year’s
Watching yesterday’s races, you could almost believe that each champ knew the other was racing. Ginger Punch, racing first, set the standard, effortlessly dispatching five overmatched rivals with a quick move. The race seemed to take nothing out of her, and she returned with nary a hair out of place.
Curlin responded in kind, overcoming a less than ideal trip — buried down on the rail behind a slow pace — to overwhelm the Foster field. He showed the kind of patience in a tight spot that professional racehorses need — exactly the kind of patience, in fact, that Big Brown could have used in the Belmont. He had to work harder than Ginger Punch to secure the win — Barcola resisted him for a time, and he returned hot and tired — but it was no less impressive.
Still, there’s something just a bit troubling about the champs being sent off at such short odds (1-2 for Ginger Punch, 2-5 for Curlin) — and it’s not just that the Pick 6 paid less than $50, or that the consolation Pick 6 paid a whopping $2.80.
Ginger Punch’s five rivals were showing a total of five graded wins on the page among them, none a Grade 1; Curlin’s were even less impressive, with nine of them combining for just three graded wins on dirt on the page. Einstein is an authentic Grade 1 quality horse on the turf but not quite so impressive on the main track, and Brass Hat’s best racing days appear to be behind him; he’s more than two years removed from his win in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap.
In fact, we have too many Grade 1 races and not enough Grade 1 horses. As a result, truly championship caliber horses end up running against overmatched fields, and winning rather too easily. It’s not good for handle — it was pretty much impossible to pick against either champ yesterday — and it’s not good for racing; what builds interest in racing is not six-length romps but head and head battles to the wire. We want rivalries, not routs, but rivalries are hard to come by these days.
One of the tools supposed to create close finishes — differing weights in handicap races — clearly doesn’t work anymore (if it ever did). There was more than a little whining out of camp Curlin about his weight impost — and a lesser amount out of Ginger Punch trainer Bobby Frankel about hers — but one could argue that both should have had bigger weight disadvantages. Ginger Punch gave her lightest rival nine pounds, and Curlin gave his 15 — but those differences hardly represent the yawning chasm between those horses and the competition they faced yesterday.
Since racing secretaries are loathe to pile on the pounds — because horses’ connections have more choices now of where, when, and under what conditions to run — even the slightest attempt to level the field sparks outrage among the connections. Frankel has made this case before, and he may be right: it may be time to do away with handicaps, at least for Grade 1 races.
Ginger Punch is five years old, and Curlin is four. We won’t see either of them after this year (and in the case of Curlin, if the Arc remains his key objective for the year, we won’t be seeing much of him in the US the rest of this year). They are among the increasingly rare examples of a once plentiful species: the champion horse returning to defend his title.
Frank Stronach, who owns Ginger Punch, previously brought back champion Ghostzapper though his return was aborted by an injury following his Met Mile victory (for which he received a 123 Beyer). Similarly, Invasor’s return to racing following his championship season ended after two starts (and two victories). These are the two best horses we’ve seen this decade — with Curlin making a bid for second at this point but unlikely to catch Ghostzapper at the top — and it’s worth noting that their title defense seasons served to validate and bolster their already impressive credentials — just as Curlin and Ginger Punch are doing now.
One day, two champs, two impressive wins. Not a bad day for racing at all.