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
#5: Iredell Romps over Majestic Hussar at Laurel
#4: Curlinup and I Try Stakes Company
Races I feature in the Twelve Days of Curlin Babies range from races of national interest to races of personal interest. Curlinup’s run in the Avers Wexler Memorial Stakes falls as squarely in the latter category as a race ever can.
For one, I’ve always taken a special interest in her due to her breeding. I’ve followed Curlinup (Almost Sma, by Cure the Blues) since first she showed up on the worktab. After all, she is an Illinois-bred Curlin baby, and you can still count the Curlin babies born here on one hand. Secondly, she played a role in a career milestone of mine: she saw the starter in the first stakes race for which I ever wrote chart notes.
It took a while for Curlinup break her maiden. She debuted last year at Fair Grounds, March of her three-year-old year. Through that spring and summer at Hawthorne, Prairie Meadows, and Arlington, she gained several underneath shares, though the Carlos Silva trainee never shed her maiden label. After a pair of off-the-board finishes in Kentucky last fall, the Asiel Stable homebred got a break until her four-year-old year.
Curlinup returned in June of this year. Though her first start of the year was a flat sixth-place finish in a maiden special weight at Prairie Meadows, her second start off the lay went a bit better. In an Illinois maiden special weight on July 16 at Arlington, she tracked along the rail from the middle of a six-horse pack, swung three-wide in shallow stretch, and kicked home to an easy five-length triumph.
I was working then, and most of the race I spent jotting down margins and fractions instead of enjoying the view from five stories up. But in the final furlong of that polytrack mile, when I had nothing else I needed to write down at the moment, I allowed myself to relish the sight of her drawing off to victory, becoming just the third Illinois-bred Curlin baby to win. I didn’t write the chart for Curlinup’s maiden win, but even having a part behind the scenes, scribbling relevant pieces of data and typing them in, thrilled me.
Over the course of the next month and a half, Curlinup finished off the board in a pair of Illinois-bred allowances: sixth in a turf route, then fifth in a polytrack sprint. Meanwhile, I was getting more experience under my belt: learning to see the races the way a chart caller needed to see them, and learning to handle fields of more than five or six horses in an accurate and timely fashion. As it was for Curlinup on the track, it was for me five stories: slow going, trial and error, but I kept trying.
Curlinup continued undaunted, and on September 9, she got her toughest assignment yet: a start in the Avers Wexler Memorial Stakes.
Leading up to it, I felt the butterflies flocking to my stomach, fluttering. I had taken margins and entered data for stakes races through the summer, but this would be the first time I picked up the binoculars, called the margins, and wrote the notes for a stakes race. The field size was well within my growing skills — just seven horses, when I was starting to handle fields of eight or even nine. But, the voice reverberated: this is a stakes race. People are watching. You can’t mess this up, even a little bit.
Until, of course, the starter sprung the latch.
The wonderful thing about chart calling? Once the horses break from the gate, there’s no time to be nervous. There isn’t even time to feel relief when the nerves dissipate, or when the troubles of the world take a back seat for the moment. There’s only time to watch the race, look at the horses, call their margins, focus on when they’re approaching close enough to the next pole that it’s time to call them again.
As I focused on my job, Curlinup focused on hers. If horses could read the tote, perhaps she would have been nervous. Curlinup was the longest shot in the field — 33/1, when none of her six foes were in double digits — but she had no way to know that. She bounced out of the gate, and though she hopped a bit, she settled swiftly into stride along the rail to track leader Moms Choice from a few lengths back. She sat fourth down the backstretch run, saving every inch of ground, then improved into the far turn. Curlinup nosed her way into third, edging closer to pacesetter Moms Choice and the stalking Princess Erindelle.
Into the stretch, the race had little suspense. Moms Choice opened up, never challenged in the stretch, a winner by four easy lengths. Princess Erindelle looked like she may not even hold second entering the final furlong, with Curlinup coming to her inside, but found enough to hold a clear second. Majestic Angel, who saved ground behind Curlinup, slipped outside her in the final furlong to nab third. But, for a horse with just one win to her name, against state-breds no less? Curlinup may have been overmatched on paper, but she put forth an honest effort to hold for fourth, to split the field of seven.
And though disappointment briefly flashed through my mind as I walked from the window back to my chair — wouldn’t it have been great if Curlinup had won the first stakes race for which I called margins and did notes? — I knew Curlinup had done better than most anyone could have thought she did. She made her stakes debut, and she held her own. She did her part while I did mine, focusing on the horses and their positions over the last 1:45.38, without missing a pole or getting hung up on something irrelevant.
And now, it was time to write.