It was fitting that Palace Malice won the Met Mile on Belmont Stakes Day.
He won a classic race in 2013 – the Belmont Stakes – and has come back as a maturing four-year-old to win his first four races of the year and is the early frontrunner for horse of the year.
His return to the races is a boon for the sport and far more important than a Triple Crown winner. The sport needs stars that hang around past the Triple Crown campaign. Palace Malice, thankfully for the sport, is no longer the rarity he we would have been a few years ago.
Game On Dude won his third Santa Anita Handicap this year, four years after coming up short in the Belmont Stakes.
Shackleford won the 2011 Preakness and came back the following year, like Palace Malice, to win the Met Mile.
Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby and, two years later, won the Dubai World Cup.
Drosselmeyer won the 2010 Belmont Stakes and the 2011 Breeder’s Cup Classic.
For all the issues facing horse racing, the one that was about to officially remove it from the public consciousness was the fact that its biggest stars – its Triple Crown race winners – quickly vanished.
Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Empire Maker, Point Given – none ran as a four year old. The first half of the 2000s was a dreadful decade for older horses.
I guess I should explain why it was fitting that Palace Malice won the Met Mile. His daddy was Curlin. And Curlin changed everything.
As I walked around Belmont Park on Saturday, I came across a huge banner commemorating Curlin’s win in the 2008 Jockey Gold Cup to become the first $10 million horse. I vividly remember that day because I was not at Belmont Park. But I was home, crushingly disappointed that Curlin’s big race only found a home on TVG and, thus, a miniscule television audience.
When people write their usual “horse racing is dead” articles, they tend to ignore a period in time where it actually felt like horse racing was about to die. It coincided with Curlin’s rise to prominence.
In 2006, Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby, nearly broke down two weeks later at the Preakness and would eventually succumb to his injuries. That year’s Breeders Cup was marred by two breakdowns. In 2008, Eight Belles broke down after finishing second to Big Brown, a horse that was trained by the crooked Rick Dutrow and shot up with enough steroids to make Mark McGwire jealous.
It was a bad, bad time for horse racing.
Against that backdrop, Curlin appeared almost out of thin air in early 2007. Unraced at age 2, he won his first race as a three-year-old by 12 lengths. He won next two races – the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby – and showed up at the Kentucky Derby as the morning line favorite despite having only three races.
He lost that day. But it was only the beginning of a 2007 campaign that featured three of the best horse races in the past 15 years.
At the Preakness, he lost the lead in the stretch to Derby winner Street Sense and miraculously came back to win at the wire.
At the Belmont Stakes, he battled down the stretch with the filly Rags to Riches and lost by a desperate nose.
At that year’s Jockey Gold Cup, he somehow nosed Lawyer Ron – one of the best older horses in training – in a way that I still don’t think he’s going to get there every time I watch. He finished his year by demolishing the field at the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Even through his triumphs, he was clouded in the controversy that had enveloped horse racing in the mid-2000s. The horse’s minority owners were caught in a federal complaint regarding fraud and would eventually be sentenced to two-plus decades in jail.
The horse’s majority owner was the late Jess Jackson and he proved to be one of the most important horseman – and sportsman – in recent horse racing history.
When Curlin finished his 2007 year, it was expected that he would be retired as all valuable three-year-olds were then. Instead, Curlin came back and complete one of the most audacious campaigns any horse has run in the past quarter-century.
He won two races in Dubai, including the Dubai World Cup by 8 lengths. He won the Grade I Stephen Foster, Woodward and Jockey Gold Cup. He tried the Grade I Man o’ War on turf and nearly pulled it off.
It was the presence of Curlin that saved the Breeders Cup in 2008. The breakdowns had led to a rush and since-refuted push of synthetic tracks that didn’t reduce breakdowns but did produce far different results than traditional dirt racing.
The 2008 Classic was shaping up as an absolute dud since that year’s Triple Crown hero Big Brown was retired and Zenyatta, still a star in the making, would be run in the Distaff the day prior. It nearly left Saturday – and an ESPN showcase – without any horse worth caring about. But despite Jess Jackson’s and trainer Steve Asmussen’s belief Curlin would not take to the synthetic dirt, Curlin ran. As expected, he did not run well.
It is a shame that so much of Curlin’s career took place in relative anonymity as television networks and the general public shied away from horse racing.
But Curlin changed the whole game. This year, NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 will combine to televise nearly three-dozen stakes races, not including the two-day Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown days. If that was the case in 2008, Curlin would have been regularly featured on basic cable and broadcast television.
Curlin changed the breeding game. The thoroughbred was becoming fragile because it was being bred specifically and essentially for speed. Horses being retired after three gave breeders no true insight on their durability, their stamina and their longevity.
There are no such concerns with Curlin, who was built like a Mack truck. For two straight years, he danced every danced and stared down all comers. He was a model of consistency and brilliance.
He was a throwback to a different era when horses were allowed to mature. He called to mind a horse like Spectacular Bid or Alysheba, who were Triple Crown stars that followed up with spectacular – sorry I had to – four-year-old campaigns.
The impact of Curlin was felt not only on Belmont day but during the Preakness when California Chrome was tested by the aptly named Ride on Curlin. Like his father, Ride on Curlin ran in all three Triple Crown races.
Curlin is currently the #5 sire in the country and helping to turn around, potentially, the entire breed.
In the run-up to the Belmont Stakes, Art Sherman said he hopes that California Chrome will run as a four-year-old and believes that will happen.
If it does, it will not be the shock it was nearly a decade. Curlin changed the game. Curlin saved the sport.
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