Chicago, Curlin babies, and conflict

If anyone asks where my horse racing attentions fall most, I answer that they lie in two places: Curlin babies and Chicago racing.  Those realms overlapped twice over the weekend.

Out west at Santa Anita, Diversy Harbor had entered the Grade III Santa Barbara Handicap.  Despite the mangled spelling, her name refers to the place in Chicago where Lincoln Park meets the lake.  A four-year-old daughter of Curlin, Diversy Harbor could not have been bred better to run long.  In addition to her father’s distance prowess, her dam Motokiks (by Storm Cat) had produced both Keertana and Snow Top Mountain.  Snow Top Mountain won a pair of graded stakes going nine furlongs on the dirt; Keertana beat males going a mile and a half in the 2011 Louisville Handicap (GIII).  Diversy Harbor herself had looked sharp finishing second in last year’s American Oaks (GI), and the Santa Barbara would be her first time trying ten furlongs since that race.  A daughter of Curlin, named after a place in Chicago, and bred to run all day?  She had all the makings of a horse crush, and I have been smitten since she started running last year.

Back east at Hawthorne, Conquest Curlinate had been entered in Saturday’s Illinois Derby.  An Ontario-bred, he had only raced previously at Woodbine and Oaklawn.  But his owners, Conquest Stables, call the suburbs of Chicago home.  Conquest Curlinate would be the first horse they would run in a stakes race nearby.  In addition to the Curlin connection and the Chicago connection, he had more characteristics I love in a horse.  A registered grey or roan, he looked far more roan even in his single start at two, but has started to grey out significantly at three.  He had broken his maiden two starts back, showing a thrilling closing kick.  I also make no secret of my love for the tanks; out of all of the horses in the paddock for the Illinois Derby, only Cross the Line rivaled him in size.  A son of Curlin, racing in Chicago for local connections, a confirmed closer, and a big, grey tank?  I had it bad for Conquest Curlinate, and could not wait to see him race in my backyard.

In the paddock before the Illinois Derby, I already struggled to catch my breath.  The Charles Town Classic had happened just before.  I knew Shared Belief had pulled up, and I didn’t know how he was doing.  Still, what I could glean from Twitter suggested that it might have been precautionary.  In light of that, I tried to pull myself together and try to enjoy the moment.

I was in my home paddock, after all, in the presence of Conquest Curlinate.  I had been looking forward to seeing him in person since I saw that he had been nominated for the Illinois Derby, and was even more excited to see him in person once Ernie Semersky told me that he was such a big horse.  Seeing him walk around the paddock…Conquest Curlinate was everything I had hoped he would be, and more.

Conquest Curlinate, before the 2015 Illinois Derby
Conquest Curlinate, before the 2015 Illinois Derby.

The Illinois Derby field made its way out onto the track.  I watched the horses walk by, and tried to remain as calm as possible.  I had to temper my excitement (or, at least the visible manifestations of my excitement…) about Conquest Curlinate, since I did not know who I would be interviewing after the race.  I had to postpone my worry about Shared Belief, because I could no do anything no matter how bad his injury was, and I needed to keep my head in the game long enough to watch the race and do a coherent interview.

Then, Paul showed us a potentially ominous tweet from Jeremy Balan: “Ugh.  Diversy Harbor might be in trouble.”  My heart sank.  I do not remember who suggested that maybe, just maybe, it referred to her having no pace into which to close.  I tried to believe that was it.  We were not watching the race, after all; we were all huddled up near the winners’ circle at Hawthorne, waiting for the Illinois Derby to begin.  Knowing her style, it was just plausible enough an explanation that I could try clinging to it.

However, we found out quickly that such an outlook was artificially rosy.  Our gut instincts had not been unduly tainted by the recent trouble with Shared Belief; they had been right.  The tweet had nothing to do with the pace scenario.  Diversy Harbor had not finished the race, and she would be vanned off the course.  I knew nothing more than this by the time the gates flung open for the Illinois Derby.

I tried to keep my head in the game.  For more serious reasons, I needed to recall what went on in the race.  I would be writing a recap for Picks and Ponderings, and I had to be able to ask intelligent questions to the connections.  For more personal reasons, I wanted to be able to enjoy Conquest Curlinate in particular.  He was the first Curlin baby to race at Hawthorne since Air Squadron on November 15, and I had just met his owners, who could not have been nicer or more excited about the sport of horse racing.

The gates opened, and I watched the race.  I tried to get past the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I could not do it.  Even as Conquest Curlinate motored down the stretch, showing every bit of the promise his maiden win suggested, I could not get completely lost in it.  Part of me was thrilled that Conquest Curlinate just might win the Illinois Derby.  Another part remained 2,001 miles away, worried sick about Diversy Harbor, berating any fibre of my being that could enjoy a race while she was in distress.  I did not feel tempered excitement.  I felt conflict.

Over the next few hours, that conflict began to simmer down.  Things began to look up.  Craig Bernick, the principal of Glen Hill Farm (Diversy Harbor’s owner), said she had broken her sesamoid and would never race again, but she would likely live.  That made me cautiously optimistic, enough to catch my breath and watch the Illinois Derby again.  It would never be the same as having that big, grey tank galloping past me, but I could enjoy the race without being blinded by worry.

I could appreciate Conquest Curlinate’s turn of foot, and start to get excited about my Queen’s Plate horse.  Conquest Curlinate ran his heart out on Saturday.  He let the pace battle unfold, swung wide turning for home, and powered down the long Hawthorne stretch.  Whiskey Ticket held on gamely, but that takes nothing away from how Conquest Curlinate ran.  He did everything that was asked of him, and did it as well as a fourth-time starter by a sire not known for precocity possibly could.  Like most Curlin babies, Conquest Curlinate should only improve with age if he stays healthy.

As jarring as that juxtaposition was at the time…now that Diversy Harbor seems to be coming out of her surgery well, I can look at it with calmer eyes.  One Curlin baby named after a place in Chicago abruptly reached the end of her racing days on Saturday.  A moment later, a son of Curlin owned by Chicago-area connections made a successful stakes debut at a Chicago-area track.  I am grateful Diversy Harbor will remain with us, excited for Conquest Curlinate’s racing future, and glad both of these horses have a tie to my home.

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