Curlin impresses in World Cup warm-up

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The Independent Online

Even with the countdown to the Cheltenham Festival now at just 11 days there is, believe it or not, racing life away from Gloucestershire. And last night in Dubai the best Flat racer on the planet, Curlin, made his seasonal reappearance with his majesty undimmed.

The four-year-old, warming up for next month's World Cup, was set the relatively simple task of giving more than a stone to vastly inferior rivals in a 10-furlong handicap, and achieved it by three nonchalant lengths with his ears pricked.

And despite his jockey Robbie Albarado barely having to engage third gear, the time set by the massive chestnut was only a second outside Dubai Millennium's record for the course and distance. "We wanted to get it done as easy as possible and save as much as possible for the big night," said Albarado, "and I think we achieved that. He is just an astonishing horse."

Only the inaugural World Cup winner Cigar came to Dubai with a higher rating than the 129 earned by Curlin, winner of last year's Preakness Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic and the big horse dwarfed his opponents in yesterday's preliminaries both in size and electric presence. In the race, he tracked the early leader Imperialista wide into the straight, and needed to come off the bridle for only a couple of strides, as he was asked to go clear.

"He'd been off the track for a while, and needed the race mentally as well as physically," added Albarado. "He was a little keen early, so I took him away from the others to help him settle." A familiarisation warm-up in Dubai for the world's richest race, rather than at home in the States, was always part of trainer Steve Asmussen's master-plan for the son of Smart Strike. "There was a lot for him to see in the stretch, and he was looking around," said Asmussen, "but he'll know it next time."

If Tony McCoy's race to get to the Festival is going to go down to the wire, his more recently injured weighing-room colleague Andrew Thornton has accepted defeat in his efforts to achieve his own target, the ride on much-fancied Simon in the Grand National.

Thornton dislocated a shoulder in a fall at Kempton on Saturday and although he accepted that riding at Cheltenham was off his agenda, he had hoped to be back in the saddle at Aintree. But he revealed yesterday that the damage was more extensive than first thought and has effectively ended his season.

"I've pulled the muscle off the back of my shoulder and damaged the tendon as well," he said. "I'm going to need an operation on it and it's going to be at least three months, and I'll be giving it all the time it needs."

McCoy, passed fit by his own doctor on Monday to ride out of a morning, will not see an independent specialist to confirm his return to racecourse action until Thursday. The consensus of medical opinion is that the 12-times champion will first sit on a horse in anger on Monday week, eight weeks to the day that he had a screw inserted into a vertebra, and 24 hours before the start of the Festival.

One of Ireland's Champion Hurdle challengers, Harchibald, will tune up for his Cheltenham challenge on Dundalk's all-weather track today, in a mile-and-a-half Flat race. The Noel Meade-trained nine-year-old, beaten a neck by Hardy Eustace, in the Festival showpiece three years ago, will be partnered today by Declan McDonough, who said: "It should be a nice stepping-stone, and if he could win the Champion Hurdle it would be great to be part of the whole thing." Harchibald's rivals include another high-class hurdler in Al Eile.

The defending hurdles king Sublimity will follow last year's pattern by having his final serious workout after racing at Leopardstown on Sunday. "We're very, very happy with him. Everything is going fine. We did exactly the same last year and we are trying to stick as close to that as possible," reported his trainer John Carr yesterday.

Kauto Star or Denman? The professionals give their verdicts

The Cheltenham Gold Cup encounter between the giants of steeplechasing, Kauto Star and Denman, has divided racing. Today, Michael Dickinson, who won the race with Silver Buck in 1982 and Bregawn in 1983 gives his view.

"I'll get straight to the point – my selection is Kauto Star. I saw him win the Gold Cup last year and I thought he was one of the most impressive winners I've ever seen. I was visiting my mother this Christmas and I saw both horses win at Leopardstown and Kempton and I thought Kauto Star was easily the most impressive. Denman has obviously the greater likelihood to improve and Kauto has probably reached his peak. To my mind he's a long way behind the other horse [Kauto Star] but might be able to catch up. Heavy going would be Kauto's biggest obstacle. Silver Buck wasn't a plodder and Kauto isn't a plodder."