It had been since the Belmont Stakes (GI) in June that Ride On Curlin (Magical Ride, by Storm Cat) raced.
It had been since opening weekend at Oaklawn last year that Ride On Curlin last won.
He was a consistent runner at two and three, finishing off the board only three times in twelve starts over the first two years of his racing career. He was eased in the Belmont, got a break, and then that break became even longer as he worked through a splint issue. His connections had patience, and could not have picked a more reasonable comeback race: a six-furlong N2X allowance over his favourite course, Oaklawn. The class and distance did not look to ask too much too soon, and yet it was the sort of race from which he would likely get something win or lose.
A seven-month lay meant hopes had to be at least somewhat tempered, but there were several auspicious signs. He had run well off of a lay before; his Oaklawn allowance win last year came immediately after two and a half months off. He was working frequently, first at Churchill and at Oaklawn. He also reunited with rider Jon Court, who had ridden him once before: to a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby (GI) in April. Though he could not catch Danza that day, he closed well into reasonable fractions, and clearly eclipsed Bayern for the place. It lent credence to my Derby-season mantra that Ride On Curlin raced well from off the pace, as he had in the Champagne, and Jon Court had shown in his Arkansas Derby ride that he could adeptly ride Ride On Curlin from off the pace. It was encouraging to see him get the mount.
The gates opened. Ride On Curlin was a beat slow getting out, and right near the back of the pack early. Court did have him running, though; he made it to the rail, and began a steady advance. Still, approaching the far turn, he was still about eight lengths off of Ali’s Birthday. The pacesetter had looked very good before the race, and was staying ahead of his stalkers despite a rather quick 21.94 opening quarter. Through the far turn, Ali’s Birthday was able to slow it down a bit; the second quarter went in 23.34, and he improved his lead. Ride On Curlin continued his run, but had to angle off the rail and get through horses. Turning for home he had made it closer to the front of the main pack, but still had about five lengths to make up.
A few strides past the furlong pole, Ride On Curlin had hit his best stride. Even as far as the sixteenth pole, Ali’s Birthday had a three-length lead, but Ride On Curlin hacked away at that lead with every step he took. He was moving far better than anyone else in the field, but the wire was coming fast. Said track announcer Frank Mirahmadi:
“Ali’s Birthday by two! Ride On Curlin flying! It’s gonna be a tearjerker…RIDE ON CURLIN, UP IN TIME! Ali’s Birthday did everything but win.”
It had been seven months since his last race, twelve months since his last win. None of that mattered today. Ride On Curlin crossed the wire a head in front.
Before this race, trainer Billy Gowan had suggested that the Oaklawn Handicap (GII) would be his ultimate goal for the spring. After this race, it looks like all systems go.