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.
#12: My Curby makes a winning visit to Arlington
#11: Reversiontothemean finds the wire just in time
#10: Theogony goes long in the Rags to Riches
#9: Barbara’s Smile soars against the boys
#8: Fireball Merlin and Copperplate go clockwise
#7: Undulated debuts without fear
#6 Stellar Wind defeats a champion in the Clement Hirsch
#5 Connect wins the race named after his sire
In most years, the three-year-old glory rains on the Classic winners. This year was a bit different, as focus on Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Creator earlier in the year shifted elsewhere through the summer and the fall.
Gun Runner was consistently good in stakes company from the beginning of the year to the end, but did not capture his top-level win until the Clark Handicap (GI) in November. Arrogate debuted in April, ran through his allowance conditions in California, and proved an elite ten-furlong horse in the Travers (GI) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI).
And then, there was Connect (Bullville Belle, by Holy Bull). The three-year-old colt broke his maiden at Belmont on Kentucky Derby Day, and cleared his first-level allowance condition on the Belmont Stakes undercard.
Connect finally made his stakes debut in August, becoming the first Curlin foal to start in the Curlin Stakes.
Despite Curlin’s status as a hall of fame racehorse and a top-class sire, he has just a modest stakes run in his name. The Jim Dandy (GII) is Saratoga’s traditional highway the Travers Stake; the Curlin Stakes is the quieter side road.
The race has produced some good winners through its short history. Its first winner, Blame, became a multiple Grade I winner the next year. The Curlin Stakes even produced a Travers winner in 2014, when V. E. Day nosed out Jim Dandy winner Wicked Strong.
Despite emphatic wins in his maiden and allowance races, Connect did not go off the favourite. That status went to his stablemate Gift Box, third in the Remsen (GII) the previous year, and coming off a decisive allowance score of his own.
The race would unfold as a battle between that pair from the Chad Brown barn.
Rail-drawn Connect took advantage of his position, dictating terms along the rail. Well-bred longshot Dolphus pressed to his outside in the early stages, with Gift Box and Majesto tracking just behind.
Connect maintained his lead down the backstretch. Approaching the far turn, Gift Box poked his neck in between the fence and his frontrunning stablemate. As John Velazquez pushed Connect along through the turn, Gift Box went with him. No one else did; by the time the field hit the stretch, they had opened up daylight on the rest.
Connect lost ground turning for home, going a bit wide into the stretch. It gave Gift Box a chance to draw almost even with Connect. But, the son of Curlin kept his head in front. He had more to give. It remained a tight duel to the sixteenth pole…but then Connect got away. He edged clear to cross the wire a length in front of Gift Box.
The first Curlin baby to start in the Curlin Stakes became the first Curlin baby to win the Curlin Stakes.
It would have been a cleaner fairy tale if Connect came back to join fellow Curlin son Keen Ice in the ranks of Travers winners. However, Travers Day belonged to Arrogate. Connect finished a rough, non-threatening sixth.
Even so, Connect proved his Curlin Stakes victory was no fluke. His star rose in the Pennsylvania Derby (GII), where he rallied from midpack and held off Gun Runner. It was Connect’s first graded stakes victory, and an exacta that cemented the Pennsylvania Derby’s elevation to Grade I status for 2017. Then, to close his season, he called on every bit of his grit to win a stretch duel against Divining Rod in the Cigar Mile (GI).
Connect has now won classier races, but his springboard into stakes company came in the most fitting way possible: the race named after his great sire.