He may not have won his last start, but few can discount Curlin’s almost supernatural ability and style. He has gone above and beyond the normal career path of American racehorses, and has proven that his name belongs beside those of champions of decades gone by.
The first time I saw Curlin, I was literally speechless. I had expected to be awed by his grace and power, but nothing could prepare me for the scene on Breeder’s Cup day 2008 as he gradually parted the crowd and made his way to the racetrack. I had saved a spot on the rail right above the entrance to the tunnel almost a half hour before the race to ensure that I’d get a good view of Curlin before he passed into the shadowy depths of the Santa Anita grandstand. As the Classic drew nearer, the atmosphere around me began to change; where before I had been among a somewhat drunken and crazy mass of people, I could feel a subtle shift. An excitement filled the air, a tangible buzz that foretold the brevity of the moments to come.
Parked above the tunnel entrance, I watched as the first few starters emerged from the paddock and disappeared into the tunnel. Tiago was led by, his coat gleaming in the afternoon sun; Henrythenavigator pranced past, held securely by a number of attendants and coat already wet with sweat. Then the mood shifted again. He was coming. The crowd scrambled to get closer to the rail, and I caught my first glimpse of Curlin as he stepped out of the paddock. He didn’t merely walk out; he parted the crowd. He was a shining copper horse amid a sea of people, all of whom were clambering to snap a picture and get as close as possible to him.
Curlin had a presence; as he made his way through the horde, it was clear that he was something. He wasn’t just another racehorse going out to run around an oval. He was something, about to go out and battle for history. For a moment, the crowd was hushed, simply taking in the horse before them, but then people started clapping, saluting the horse who had gone half way around the world and had conquered the best there was. It was then that I realized that while a win would be spectacular, it wasn’t necessary; Curlin had already proven himself to be a freakishly talented racehorse. A second Classic win would be the cherry atop a very opulent sundae.
As the crowd around me bunched and swayed, still trying to catch a glimpse of Curlin, I noticed the hard lines of his body. He was small, smaller than I had expected, and boasted a lean, muscular physique. There was not an ounce of superfluous flesh on him; he was a supreme machine and looked like it. Everything about him screamed power, and he moved lightly over the ground, his joints working fluidly as he floated through the crowd. He carried himself with grace and composure, which was quite astounding considering the conditions. Head lifted, he seemed to survey the mass around him, taking everything in but at the same time seeming utterly imperturbable. He knew his job and he was ready to do it.
Within a few seconds of him appearing before me, he was gone, consumed by the darkness of the tunnel and about to step back into the bright light of the track. The surface he would run on, Santa Anita’s newly-installed ProRide, would be his most formidable opponent that day. Despite a few good works over the track, he had not raced over it, and thus was more vulnerable than usual. He warmed up nicely, cantering fluidly over the dark brown surface as I fought my way back into the clubhouse to try to find a spot to watch the race.
As it turned out, I ended up smashed between some people who had most assuredly had far too much to drink, so I didn’t see much of the race. However, just being within that crowd was an astounding experience. Here were thousands of people all huddled together, cheering and straining and screaming, all with their hearts set on one horse. They had their money, their hopes, and their hearts riding along with their respective picks, and during those few minutes of the race, nothing in the world mattered more than seeing their horse fight his way through the pack and maybe, hopefully, coming out ahead.
Standing on my tiptoes, eyes straining, I picked out Curlin as the field pounded down the stretch the first time and watched them disappear around the turn. What followed was a long minute or so in which the crowd around me waited anxiously, unable to see what was happening, yet still screaming for their picks. It was an awkward, aching moment, whose end was marked by a tremendous roar that signified the field appearing at the top of the stretch. Curlin had powered around the turn, his body flat and low as he hurled himself forward, ever closer to the wire. He was fighting hard, and it showed. The grandstand acknowledged his position, but their cries soon died down when they saw what was happening. Curlin was falling back, his lead shrinking until he was running four abreast, dangerously close to being totally consumed by the field. Robby Albarado rocked on his back, flashing the whip and trying to muster another push out of his mount, but Curlin was done. Raven’s Pass spurted up to take the lead and the cup as Curlin faded to fourth.
He had lost, and lost fairly, without much of a fight, yet somehow, that made Curlin all the more likable. He had already shown his magnificence to America and the world, and this loss only proved him immortal. We all have moments of greatness, yet such moments are fleeting. Even great victories may eventually be forgotten or lost in the shuffle of life. What remains is the linger of victory, that feeling of having accomplished something great and left behind a legacy. Curlin, despite his loss, showed us grace in loss. Even champions fall, and perhaps doing so as Curlin did shows even more character than winning.
As the copper horse came back to the grandstand and was unsaddled, a few people began applauding for him. Soon, the clapping spread, and it became ever more clear that Curlin was more than a winner or a loser; he was an inspiration, a horse capable of chasing greatness. He was entirely relatable, for who hasn’t tasted tasted victory only to be utterly defeated the next day?
I feel incredibly honored to have seen Curlin race, and touched to have experienced the magic of horse racing’s finest day. Few realize just how moving a race is, how people from around the world can be linked by the power of a dozen or so horses battling around an oval. It is a phenomenon unlike any other, and it is horses like Curlin who provide that allure and remind us that such moments are fleeting, and should be treasured.