Perhaps the most exciting Triple Crown campaign in years came to an end Saturday with a thrilling sprint to the wire by Preakness Stakes champion Curlin and filly Rags to Riches. Billed as a battle of the sexes, the 139th Belmont Stakes exceeded expectations for an exciting race as Rags to Riches held off a charging Curlin in one of the fastest finishes in Belmont history.
Curlin, wearing the silks of Stonestreet Stables (owned by Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson and his wife and partner, Barbara Banke), ran the final quarter-mile neck and neck with Rags to Riches in just under 24 seconds--an especially impressive time considering Curlin was pressed to the rail down the stretch.
"Just as Rags to Riches' win was put in the historical perspective of being the first filly to win the Belmont Stakes in 102 years, so too was the final quarter by her and Curlin a historic accomplishment: No horse since eventual champion Little Current in 1974 has come home as fast in the 1.5-mile race," said Ed DeRosa, news editor for the Thoroughbred Times. "Most people are impressed with a final quarter in the 25-second range, so for as impressive as Curlin and Rags to Riches looked on the track, the time looks good on paper too."
An air of nervous excitement filled the clubhouse as the day's early afternoon races proceeded. Curlin's jockey, Robby Albarado, won the Grade 2 Woody Stephens atop the Johannesberg colt Teuflesberg, a fact not lost on Banke. "Robby lost his mount in his race before the Preakness," she said, implying she'd almost superstitiously hoped he'd have done the same before the Belmont Stakes.
Despite the day's early excitement, Jackson wasn't fazed. While his guests enjoyed Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve 2004 Cabernet and 2005 Chardonnay, Jackson calmly discussed betting philosophies and gave some sage advice that proved prophetic. "Don't bet 2-1 or lower odds. In other words, don't bet on Curlin today," Jackson said. (The morning line on Curlin was 6-5, and by the time of the race, he was an even 1-1.) "Of course, I bet on him because I own him!"
Jackson, who has been around horses his entire life and even saw Sea Biscuit run in 1939 when Jackson was just 9 years old, was taking the day in stride. Seeming to put Curlin's accomplishments in perspective, he said, "There are 20,000 thoroughbred colts born every year ... How many win the Derby?"
Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, was positive after the race. "I thought Curlin ran extremely well," Asmussen said. "They came into the stretch pretty much heads up. He fought back very well. My hat is off to Rags to Riches. ... We lose one the exact same way we won one," he said, referring to Curlin's photo-finish victory over Kentucky Derby champion Street Sense in the Preakness.
"Curlin is definitely a throwback. The races that he's run since March with the pressure that's been on him, I can't say enough about him. We're very proud of him."
Curlin is anticipated to compete in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic this October, but has already provided a great boost to the sport with his outstanding performances in this year's Triple Crown races. (Hard Spun, who finished fourth at the Belmont, was the only other horse to run all three this year.)
"I left Belmont Park on Saturday a very satisfied racing fan, as this was the best race I've seen live since the October 2003 Breeders' Cup Turf when High Chaperral finished in a dead heat with Johar," said DeRosa. "This is one of those races I'll be telling my kids and grandkids about."
Other kids will benefit as well. Part of Curlin's race proceeds from all three legs of the Triple Crown and beyond will go to the Curlin for Kids foundation, set up by Jackson before the Kentucky Derby. The foundation benefits numerous charities including Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Smile Train, which provides free surgeries for children with cleft lips and palates. A Jackson spokesperson also said the company is considering creating a Curlin for Kids silk that can be worn by other jockeys to help raise even more money for the foundation.
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