Congrats to Curlin, the Eclipse award Horse of the Year for 2008.
Eclipse voters cast 153 ballots in favor of The Golden Warrior, with Zenyatta getting 69 votes and Big Brown only 13. While I would have loved to see Zenyatta get the Big Prize, the fact is Curlin ran a typical HOTY campaign. Despite a growing embrace of changes for the better, the sport is still devoted to its traditions. Curlin would have been HOTY in the olden days before the Breeders’ Cup, because he won the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, both Grade 1. His JCGC was a repeat win, and he broke an earnings record with that race, both major pluses for traditional Eclipse voters. He also won the Steven Foster Handicap at Churchill, and he ran a credible second in the Man O’War on turf. He tried the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was beaten by better synthetic runners. His races were all Grade 1 stakes against open company, and those are his US stats, the only record that is supposed to matter in Eclipse balloting. Of course, that is not Curlin’s complete 2008 record. The reigning HOTY travelled to Dubai and won two major races, the Jaguar Trophy and the Dubai World Cup, against the best dirt horses in Asia and the Middle East. He won the Jaguar under 132 pounds, an unheard-of impost for stakes in the US. The Dubai World Cup win was visually impressive as Curlin coasted home by over 7 lengths.
Along the way, Curlin became the yardstick by which the ’08 three year old crop was measured. His owner, Jess Jackson, appealed to racing fans by shipping the Golden Warrior to tracks across the nation and giving races on all surfaces a try. With over $10 million in earnings, Curlin now sits atop the list of All-Time Leading Money Winners, breaking a record held for 13 years by the legendary Cigar. When paraded on Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs, the tipsy revelers cheered more loudly for him in the paddock than even the Derby victor in the winner’s circle. I know, I was there for that one.
Curlin may not be as fast as previous champions, nor did he win a Triple Crown or 16 (or 19) races in a row. But he was the only member of the magical class of 2007 to continue as an older horse. That was a great year, a return to thrilling, (relatively) safe racing, with tough, game rivals like Street Sense and Hard Spun and Curlin to help us get over the tragedy of Barbaro. Yes, I said Barbaro – even if you’re sick of hearing his name, you must admit he had the potential to be a great one. His loss was such a tremendous letdown, and his long struggle such a heartbreaker, that the 2007 racing season was like a salve on racing’s wounds. When Curlin came back this year, it was with the hope that the goodwill would continue. I should have known one horse was not enough. Perhaps this award will encourage other owners to bring back their champions for continued campaigns. It seems to already be working: IEAH is bringing BENNY THE BULL back for more sprints in fall!
Now that the Eclipses have been awarded and ’08 remembered one last time in all of its horrible, beautiful glory, let’s put it away and focus on 2009. The Kentucky Derby is only 92 days away!