Welcome back to the Twelve Days of Curlin Babies, where we celebrate the twelve most memorable races from Curlin’s progeny throughout 2017. Through all the hundreds of races in which they ran this year, these are the ones that keep reappearing in my mind.
#11: Fireball Merlin Carries His Class to Fort Erie
I’ve been following the progeny of Curlin for a few years now, mostly from afar. There has been the occasional Curlin son or daughter in Chicago, but for the most part, I’ve depended on Virtual Stable, race replays, and race charts to stay in touch with the world of Curlin babies.
So, when one of those horses I’ve been following for years run an excellent race that I get to see in person, it’s special. Just that happened when Fireball Merlin (Princess Ruckus, by Bold Ruckus) won an allowance on Prince of Wales Day at Fort Erie.
I remember watching Fireball Merlin in the maiden ranks, wondering if he was ever going to break through. It took him ten tries, nine of which came at Woodbine. Finally, in his tenth start — his first in the claiming ranks — the light came on. He’d win one more race, also in the claiming ranks, before the Woodbine meet was out.
The next year, at age five, he found even better form in starter company going clockwise over the Woodbine grass, becoming the only horse to win two of the EuroTurf races. Still, straight allowance company proved beyond him.
At six, Fireball Merlin rose to that challenge. He made four starts in the allowance ranks at Woodbine. Through the spring, he proved he had grown from five to six, and showed himself to be competitive at the level. In his fourth start of the year, the Ontario-bred broke through. On July 8, he got his nose down in an open N1X going six furlongs on the main.
Later that month, he shipped out to Fort Erie for an allowance going five furlongs — counterclockwise! — on the grass. Woodbine form tends to assert its class at Fort Erie, and the public sent Fireball Merlin off at just ninety-five cents on the dollar. Yet, the condition was a question. He was stepping up from a one-other-than not to a two-other-than, but an allowance open to any horse three and up who wanted to step into the starting gate. The field size also did Fireball Merlin’s running style no favours; he tends to come from off of it, yet just five horses entered the race.
Once the gates flung open, Fireball Merlin was functionally down to three foes, not four: Warbred reared at the start, lost his rider, and ran loose well behind the pace. It was Phil in the Blank who sped to the advantage, claiming the front and the rail, with Butterfly Strike prompting him to the outside. Three lengths back, Fireball Merlin tracked, contentedly in wait.
The complexion changed into the stretch. Fireball Merlin descended on the leading pair, swinging three wide for his run. Butterfly Strike gave in between horses, but Phil in the Blank showed his toughness. The pacesetter responded when rider Patrick Husbands asked him for more, and dared Fireball Merlin to come and catch him. Luis Contreras, in turn, implored Fireball Merlin for his best. He inched up to the throatlatch of Phil in the Blank, drew even, then edged to a half-length advantage through the final sixteenth of a mile.
Fireball Merlin answered the questions. He followed his best work at Woodbine with another step forward at Fort Erie. And, seeing it with my own eyes was a highlight of my year.