Welcome back to the Twelve Days of Curlin Babies, where we celebrate the twelve most memorable races from Curlin’s progeny throughout 2016. Through all the hundreds of races in which they ran this year, these are the ones that keep reappearing in my mind.
#8: Fireball Merlin and Copperplate go clockwise
This year, Woodbine introduced their EuroTurf races. Instead of traditional North American turf sprints, one counterclockwise turn over a smooth, flat curve, the EuroTurf races sent runners clockwise around Woodbine’s clubhouse turn. Furthermore, the configuration required runners to navigate a sharp turn out of the backstretch, a gently downhill straightaway, and then another turn into a short home stretch — all in less than six furlongs.
Conditioner Michael Keogh noted that Fireball Merlin (Princess Ruckus, by Bold Ruckus) handled the configuration change well during training, and entered him in the very first EuroTurf race. Run on June 10, it was a $25,000 starter allowance covering about five furlongs. Sent off the 3/1 second choice, Fireball Merlin sat off a speed duel, kicked on, and drew off to win by almost four lengths. It was enough to hope he would return to sprinting clockwise.
It happened on August 1. Fireball Merlin’s toughest competition would come from another son of Curlin, Copperplate (Verdana Bold, by Rahy).
Copperplate had been nibbling at minor awards through the year, but had not taken to the Tapeta as well as he had taken to Woodbine’s polytrack last year. It was time for Copperplate to try something new. He shortened up to five and a half furlongs, and he tried going clockwise.
Only five horses saw the starter for the race on August 1: Fireball Merlin, Copperplate, and three others. Seven had entered, but one entered as main track only and another was scratched by the vet. The public remembered how Fireball Merlin had rolled a month and a half back, sending him off the 4/5 favourite. Copperplate, despite being one of just two horses in the field who had never gone clockwise in the afternoon, went off the second choice.
On class, it made sense. But, would Copperplate challenge the proven Fireball Merlin — or would he ask his connections to send him the old way next out by blowing the turn?
Three Ring Circus sent from the rail, and Omar joined him on the far outside. That pair roared to the lead, clear of Copperplate and Between Drinks in the next flight. Fireball Merlin dropped half a dozen lengths off the dueling pair, though began to edge closer as the field approached the elbow turn.
Up front, the dueling pair had differing levels of experience over the course. Omar had gotten a try over the EuroTurf configuration before; he had been second as the favourite when Fireball Merlin won on June 10. He handled it well, but proved not quite as fast as Fireball Merlin that day. Three Ring Circus seemed more of a wild card, as he was new to the setup.
Coming into the tight first turn, both Omar and Three Ring Circus had one thing in common: they blew it.
Omar, on the outside, shot all the way to the outside rail. Three Ring Circus swung to the middle of the track. A moment before, they had held a daylight advantage. No longer; the other three sped inside.
Copperplate, who had been tracking in third, inherited the lead. Between Drinks tried to keep pace just outside, but the real threat came from the inside.
Fireball Merlin, in stark contrast to the early pacesetters, hugged the rail through the elbow turn. He slipped between Copperplate and the fence, drawing on even terms with that foe. Along the downhill straight, the two five-year-old Curlin geldings locked up, head and head.
They turned the final corner. Fireball Merlin’s inside position gave him the advantage. Copperplate kept gamely to the wire, but Fireball Merlin had just a bit more. He edged clear to beat Copperplate by three quarters of a length, becoming the first two-time EuroTurf race winner at Woodbine. Copperplate lost nothing in defeat. He showed an ability to handle the clockwise course, and he showed grit.
Fireball Merlin has raced just once since his victory on August 1. He returned two months later, in much deeper waters: a six-and-a half furlong (counterclockwise) turf sprint against a salty allowance field. He finished thirteenth and last. Though he worked a few more times before the Woodbine meet ended, he did not race again. If the last two winters are any indication, he is unlikely to resurface until Woodbine resumes next year.
Copperplate has raced four more times since. He still has yet to win in nine starts this year, though he has been second in five of his nine races this year. He moved from the barn of Daniel Vella to that of Susan Anderson, and was most recently second in an allowance-optional at Turfway.
If Woodbine brings back EuroTurf races next year, hopefully both Fireball Merlin and Copperplate return for them.