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.
#12: Stellar Wind Wins the First Beholder Mile
#11: Fireball Merlin Carries His Class to Fort Erie
#10: Irish War Cry Rolls Onto the Derby Trail
#9: Federal Agent Makes It Five Straight
#8: Horse-for-Course Captured Slips Under the Radar
#7: Good Magic Gives Curlin a Breeders’ Cup Win — and Solomini, an Exacta
#6: Handsome Franco Weathers Hurricane Maria
This summer, things looked great for Handsome Franco (Overnightsensation, by Bertrando). After being beaten by wire-to-wire winner Tensas Secret on his June 30 debut, his fortunes reversed on his second start. Though he crossed the wire second once again on July 15, he was impeded by Son Son Son — to the advantage of Son Son Son’s stablemate Sykologist. Sykologist was belatedly disqualified as a result, giving Handsome Franco his maiden win. Handsome Franco followed that up with an allowance win the next month, no disqualification needed.
September 3, Handsome Franco became the first of Curlin’s sixth two-year-old crop to win a graded stakes. In the Clásico José Coll Vidal (G3) Handsome Franco relished the sloppy conditions, rallied from last along the rail, and forged clear to beat longshot Mi Amigo Pablo home by a length and a half.
Later that month, Hurricane Maria made landfall. The storm devastated the island of Puerto Rico. Hipódromo Camarero was not spared: the storm ripped roofs from the barns, and left hundreds of horses stabled on the premises without clean water or hay. I hoped for the best of all the horses…but I wondered most intently about the son of Curlin. How was Handsome Franco doing? Did he make it?
On October 18, almost a month after Maria made landfall, Handsome Franco breezed four furlongs in 48 flat at Palm Meadows, fastest of four at the distance. He had not only survived the storm, but he made it to Florida safe, sound, and able to return to training.
Handsome Franco kept posting drills: October 28, November 11, November 26. Then, he entered a race. It was on Clásico del Caribe day at Gulfstream — though, not one of the Caribbean races, as there was none carded specifically for Caribbean two-year-olds. Instead, he would race in the Smooth Air Stakes, an open two-year-old stakes going a mile on the dirt.
Still trained by Pedro Salinas for owner Baru, Inc., he would be ridden once again by Juan C. Diaz. Long a force at Camarero, Diaz relocated to ride in South Florida after Hurricane Maria. He was settling in well, and had been winning races at Gulfstream Park West during the October-November meet there.
The Gulfstream track came up sloppy for the Smooth Air. Handsome Franco had already proven in the Clásico José Coll Vidal that he could handle those conditions. Though, he still had to prove that he was fit, ready, and able to handle the step up in both class and trip. It was his first race in Florida, where Puerto Rican class doesn’t always hold, and it was his first race longer than six furlongs.
Unfortunately, the Smooth Air was no fairy tale ending for Handsome Franco. He got bumped between horses at the break. Diaz did not panic, and revived Handsome Franco’s running style from the the Clásico José Coll Vidal by dropping him well to the rear. Handsome Franco had difficulty settling; through the opening stages, he found it difficult to settle, veering in and out a few times before Diaz got him comfortable off the rail. Despite the early trouble, the rear was not a bad place to end up early: the early pace was lively, with Coltandmississippi, Winking at Thedude, and Renaissance Frolic all pushing longshot leader Bon Raison along until he gave in.
Around the turn, Handsome Franco regained touch with the rear of the field. He passed a tired Tip Sheet and a spent Bon Raison. He passed one more horse, Renassance Frolic, approaching the wire.
Though he never looked a threat to launch at the stretch duel between Bal Harbour and Whereshedtoldmetogo, and finished eighth beaten fifteen and a quarter lengths when all was said and done, the fact that Handsome Franco even started in the Smooth Air Stakes was a victory in itself. He has survived Hurricane Maria, made it to Florida, made it back into training, made it into the starting gate. He had overcome a difficult first few furlongs, and managed to beat several horses home in his first since the storm.
Whether his future keeps him in the contiguous 48 or carries him back to Puerto Rico, it should be a bright one.