A beaten odds-on favourite in both the weekend's key US trials for the Breeders' Cup Classic, the $5m finale to the $23m meeting in New Jersey later this month, was not punter-friendly on the day. But what the results of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Kentucky Cup did do was set up a far more open and intriguing market for the big one than might have been expected. With victories on Sunday and Saturday, three-year-olds Curlin and Hard Spun have thrown hats in the ring alongside their contemporary Street Sense and four-year-old Lawyer Ron.
The victory of Curlin, who beat 7-10 shot Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, was the eyecatcher. The winning distance was only a neck, but it was an emphatic neck. The massive, powerful chestnut's relentless surge to cut down Lawyer Ron – on a Grade One hat-trick – never looked like failing and may be a reflection of the roll of his career.
The son of Smart Strike ran third to Street Sense in the Kentucky Derby on only his fourth start, beat the Churchill Downs hero a head in the Preakness, and was himself pipped in a photo in the third Triple Crown leg, the Belmont Stakes. He is, if you like, the Stateside version of Peeping Fawn, an individual unraced at two, given time to develop into a monster frame, and a revelation in progress to the top.
Sunday night's 10-furlong contest was his first try against older horses, after an eight-week lay-off. Lawyer Ron, always handy, went clear at the head of the straight, but has not won beyond nine furlongs and Curlin, brought wide, gets every yard of the trip they will face in the Classic. "I think he's an outstanding horse," said trainer Steve Asmussen, "I think he's proved that today."
At Turfway Park in Kentucky, Street Sense started 4-5 to confirm his superiority over old rival Hard Spun – second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness – but failed by a length and a quarter after a tactical battle. Slow early fractions and the winner's favoured Polytrack surface did not help the favourite, who tried gallantly but vainly to catch Hard Spun when he kicked in the straight under an excellent ride from Mario Pino.
"He had heard about this match and was ready to get it on," said the Danzig colt's trainer, Larry Jones. "This should set him up perfectly for the Breeders' Cup."
Carl Nafzger, handler of Street Sense, was gracious in defeat. "It was up to him at the head of the lane to get by Hard Spun," he said, "but he just outran us. We were right there and we got beat; that's horseracing, no excuses. But we're ready for next time."
Curlin and Lawyer Ron are now vying for favouritism for the Monmouth Park showpiece at 4-1, with Street Sense and Lawyer Ron's three-year-old stablemate Any Given Saturday, who beat Hard Spun and Curlin in August, next at 5-1 and Hard Spun 10-1. "We'll all meet again in a month," added Asmussen, "and a lot of honours will be decided."
One who will no longer be involved in the Classic is the Godolphin colourbearer Discreet Cat, only third on his long-awaited comeback after illness in the Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont on Sunday night. A six-furlong Grade One sprint against specialist older speedsters was an ambitious ask for the colt, whose unbeaten run came to an abrupt end when he was last in the Dubai World Cup in March, and although left standing by runaway winner Fabulous Strike, was not disgraced.
But his sights are likely to be lowered at Monmouth Park, to the Grade Two Dirt Mile, one of the three new additions to the Breeders' Cup card, over two days for the first time this year.
"He got tired, and the distance was too short," said his trainer, Saeed Bin Suroor, "but I am sure he will improve. He gave a good blow afterwards and further will suit him better."