Curlin and Big Brown camps shadow box

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Don King would know just how to handle this one. Like so many heavyweight showdowns, it is being inflamed by hyperbole, needle, speculation. And the whole thing could yet dissolve in much the same way: in cynical evasion, and popular disillusion. For now, nobody knows whether it is going to come off. But what everybody does know, in the United States and beyond, is that they will feel cheated if they never get to see Curlin and Big Brown step into the ring together.

Last weekend, it was Curlin's turn to send an inferior challenger sprawling to the canvas, this time in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. Afterwards, his camp took the chance to reiterate his epoch-making merit. Would they like to run Curlin against Big Brown? Sure they would. They fear nobody. Will he run against Big Brown? Maybe. Maybe not.

And how about Big Brown's people? Do they want the Kentucky Derby winner to meet the older champion? You bet they do. On their own terms, of course.

The trouble is that both camps can make the same, innocent claim: "If you think your horse is good enough, you know where to find us." Unfortunately, both have their own schedule, and neither is being terribly flexible.

On the overall evidence of their careers to date, most observers would instinctively award the moral high ground to Curlin, whose owner, Jess Jackson, has often dovetailed his interests with those of the racing public. The man who crusaded against institutional amorality in the bloodstock market not only kept his champion in training, but has campaigned him adventurously. Curlin won the Dubai World Cup, and then Jackson showed that his interest in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was earnest by running him in a Grade One race on turf. Curlin was beaten, however, and returned to dirt at Saratoga

In contrast, Rick Dutrow Jr goaded an awful lot of people during Big Brown's Triple Crown quest, which ended so abruptly in the Belmont Stakes. The trainer was perceived as arrogant and disrespectful, and his candid admissions over the use of steroids did not help.

In fairness, however, it is Big Brown who is being aimed at the logical target for both horses: the Breeders' Cup Classic, at Santa Anita on 25 October. This is the richest prize in the land, won at Monmouth last year by Curlin. This time, however, it is being staged on a synthetic surface, and that prospect has caused Jackson and his trainer, Steve Asmussen, to falter in their professed audacity.

Curlin did not impress everyone on Saturday, but Saratoga is notorious as "the graveyard of champions" and Jackson laid it on with a trowel. "Aside from the Dubai race and the Breeders' Cup, this is the most important race we've won, because of its historic nature, and its premier contribution to Curlin's legacy," he said. "Good horses like Man O'War and Secretariat had problems here. That's an honour roll of some of the greatest. I'm glad Curlin showed he was up to it."

Jackson left the door ajar to Santa Anita, acknowledging that "the perfect scenario" would be to go for both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup – as he did last year – and then on to Japan in November. But he implied that this schedule would ask too much of the horse.

Asmussen could only add: "We'll kind of enjoy what happened here, admire him for a little bit, and then try to make a decision on where he's at and what's best for him."

Dutrow, meanwhile, watched the Woodward on television in New York. These days he is proving rather more cautious in his public pronouncements and confined himself to praying that Curlin would show up at Santa Anita. "You're supposed to have the biggest ones meet on the biggest days," he said pointedly.

From the outside, it is impossible to judge quite how disingenuous each camp had been in offering the other incentives to change schedule. Jackson promised a $50,000 donation to charity if Big Brown joined Curlin in either the Woodward or Jockey Club Gold Cup. Big Brown's connections responded by proposing a match race at Churchill Downs, a month after the Breeders' Cup. But Jackson's priority around that time is Japan, while Big Brown, who took his record to six wins in seven when resuming in the Haskell at Monmouth last month, will have his Breeders' Cup prep race, on turf back in New Jersey, on 13 September.

Of course, they could both end up at Santa Anita only to find themselves ambushed by Aidan O'Brien. Henrythenavigator is considered the Ballydoyle trainer's most likely challenger, though a more imminent objective is the Prix du Moulin at Longchamp on Sunday. After all these verbal feints and jabs, it would be typical if the knockout punch were to come from another glove.

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