A Triple Dose of “Curl” Power in Breeders’ Cup Distaff

Although everyone will be anxiously awaiting the reappearance of Flightline in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and his showdown with Life is Good and the nation’s top 3-year-olds, the truly historic moment could come in the Distaff where the three likely favorites will be daughters of Curlin, whose fascinating back story will also be discussed in this week’s column. ~ Steve Haskin

A Triple Dose of “Curl” Power in Breeders’ Cup Distaff

By Steve Haskin

Left to right: Malathaat, Nest, and Clairiere


Is there anyone who can knock off Todd Pletcher’s dynamic daughters of Curlin, Malathaat and Nest, in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff? How about, uh, a daughter of Curlin? With Clairiere appearing the main threat to the Pletcher pair it is safe to say no sire has ever been more dominant in a single race, especially one of this magnitude, than Curlin will be if Malathaat, Nest, and Clairiere all make it to the race.

Curlin, who resides at Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa Farm near Paris, Kentucky, is having an amazing year, both on the track and in the sales ring. Not only does Curlin have a stranglehold on the Distaff, another Hill ‘n’ Dale stallion, Violence, will be represented by Hopeful and Breeders’ Futurity winner Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Although the undefeated and untested Cave Rock looks to be the solid favorite in the Juvenile it is worth noting that Forte received a faster Thoro-Graph number (2 3/4) at Keeneland than Cave Rock (3) did in the American Pharoah Stakes.

But getting back to Curlin, not only is he holding a strong hand in the Breeders’ Cup, at this year’s Keeneland September yearling sale, in the first two sessions alone he had yearlings sell for $1.7 million, $1.2 million, and $1.1 million. At the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, he topped all sires in average price with eight yearlings selling for an average $1,071,875, including a $2 million filly and a $1.75 million colt.

Now, here he is going into the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with three fillies who have earned a total of $6,559,467, ranging from Malathaat’s $2,750,825 to Nest’s $1,873,050. They have won a total of 10 Grade 1 stakes and placed in eight others.

Going into the Spinster Stakes, the 4-year-old Malathaat and the 3-year-old Nest were polar opposites of each other. Malathaat was a battler who loved a good fight. With the exception of her easy score in the Tempted Stakes early in her career, all 11 of her starts (seven wins, three seconds and a third) were decided by less than two lengths and eight of those were decided by less than one length. In two of her defeats, in which she was beaten a head and a half-length, she was forced to come from 13 lengths back and 9 1/2 lengths back, despite being a stalker who liked to sit just off the pace. And in another defeat, she wound up battling on the lead with Clairiere in a paceless four-horse field, only to be beaten a head by outsider Maracuja, while finishing almost six lengths ahead of Clairiere.

Nest on the other hand, with the exception of her hard-fought victory in the Demoiselle Stakes last year, has won her six races by an average margin of over seven lengths, with her narrowest margin of victory being 4 ½ lengths and her largest being 12 ¾ lengths, 9 ¾ lengths, and 8 ¾ lengths, so she likes to annihilate her opponents and assert her superiority. But she will also be remembered for her gallant performance in the Belmont Stakes, in which she finished second to stablemate Mo Donegal despite having a rough trip, stumbling and getting bumped after the break and losing valuable position.

Returning to Malathaat and the Spinster, something happened to her in that race that bears watching when handicapping the BC Distaff. She stalked the pace as usual, two lengths behind the pacesetting Letruska. But this time when John Velazquez asked her on the far turn she quickly accelerated and blew right on by Letruska, drawing off to a 5 ¼-length victory. That was something we have not seen from her. So was this a case of Malathaat getting so sharp at this stage of her career that she has learned how to put her opponents away or catching a noticeably declining Letruska who now appears to be over the top at age 6? It’s just another interesting aspect of the Distaff to consider. What can be more intriguing than Malathaat and Nest eyeballing each other in the stretch and seeing which one has the true killer instinct.

But let’s not forget Clairiere, who finished behind Malathaat in all four of their meetings last year as three-year-olds. However, since her victory in the Grade 1 Cotillion and her fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, in which she closed from 11th, 15 lengths back, to be beaten three-quarters of a length and a head behind Malathaat, she has been a different filly, knocking off her nemesis in back-to-back races this year, the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont and the Grade 2 Shuvee Stakes at Saratoga. In her last start, the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes, she was sent off as the 8-5 favorite over Malathaat, but surprisingly just ran around the track the entire race, finishing fifth in the five-horse field, well behind Malathaat. But at the start she hit the front of the gate twice, cutting her tongue, and just wasn’t herself after that. She’s been training steadily since, including a sharp five-furlong breeze over the deep Saratoga training track in 1:00 4/5, and has already had several solid breezes at Keeneland.

So now it is time to see which of the whirlin’ Curlins proves to be the best filly in the country in a race that will determine the winners of the Eclipse Awards for 3-year-old filly and older filly and mare.

Many of you remember Curlin’s career as a racehorse and all his victories and awards and eventual induction into the Hall of Fame, but his early days before he became a two-time Horse of the Year were quite eventful and affected a number of lives and are a major part of his story.

So, using past material from 10 to 15 years ago and new material, here is Curlin’s back story.

No one can really predict Hall of Fame greatness after one start, but there have been a number of fortunate trainers who have had the thrill of foreseeing potential greatness in a young horse. Most of those visions, however, fade away after their sure-fire star descends into mediocrity.

For trainer Helen Pitts and her assistant and exercise rider Hanne Jorgensen, the potential greatness they foresaw in their 3-year-old colt Curlin following his career debut did indeed become reality, but sadly they would never share in it.

On Feb. 3, 2007, Pitts, longtime assistant trainer for Kenny McPeek, and Jorgensen both saw those visions of greatness as they watched their colt demolish a maiden field at Gulfstream by nearly 13 lengths, running the seven furlongs in a snappy 1:22 1/5, earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. Unfortunately for Pitts, others with deep pockets were watching as well.

Prior to his career debut Pitts had taken over most of the horses trained by her old boss after McPeek announced he was giving up his stable, at least for a while, to pursue other avenues in racing, mainly bloodstock work. It was McPeek who had picked out Curlin as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale for a modest $57,000. The son of Smart Strike had an OCD lesion removed from his left ankle as a weanling, and it wasn’t a pretty sight at the sale. Although it turned off most buyers, McPeek felt it would be a non-issue. But when his buyers, Shirley Cunningham and Bill Gallion, became angry with McPeek about having to spend $57,000 on a horse with physical issues that no one wanted and having received reports from the farm how bad the ankle looked, McPeek offered to take the colt back and find another client. He felt the colt was a steal at that price and believed he would have gone for $300,000 if his ankle didn’t look so unappealing. Cunningham and Gallion began having second thoughts and decided to keep him.

Pitts had already shown a good deal of success with the McPeek horses, especially with the top grass horse Einstein, and appeared to be a new force in training. Jorgensen had exercised and taken care of Sarava every day at Belmont Park prior to his shocking victory in the 2002 Belmont Stakes at odds of 70-1 until McPeek arrived several days before the race. When Pitts took over many of the McPeek horses and went out on her own, Jorgensen, who had become a good friend, went with her.

After spending several years focusing on bloodstock work, McPeek decided he wanted to get back to training and politicked to get Curlin, but Cunningham and Gallion had already promised him to Pitts and didn’t want to renege on their word.

Curlin was sent to Gail Garrison, manager of Cunningham’s Hillcrest Farm near Lexington, and he immediately began working on the colt’s physical problems. Curlin was at the farm for 60 days, where he was turned out in a paddock and allowed to eat grass each day. Garrison could see he was still a “big, playful kid who was full of vinegar.” He just needed time to grow up and settle into that big effortless stride of his. As McPeek had said all along, the OCD lesion was a non-issue and was never discussed again.

Finally, the colt was sent to Pitts, and it didn’t take long for her and Jorgensen to start seeing those visions of greatness. When Jorgensen worked him, she came back and told Pitts, “I’ve never sat on a horse like this before.”

On July 29, 2006, the Southern Legislative Conference convened at Churchill Downs, where the legislators were treated to a night at the races, which included three exhibition races. When Churchill Downs’ senior vice president of racing, Donnie Richardson, asked Pitts to help out and put a couple of her 2-year-olds in the races, she chose Curlin, who wound up finishing third behind the Bernie Flint-trained Speedway, who had already broken his maiden by three lengths, but was still green and needed more experience.

Riding Curlin that night was Hanne Jorgensen’s husband, Mick Jenner. They had been going together for several years when they faced each other as competitors in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Jenner was the regular exercise rider for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. But it was Jorgensen who got the better of that battle, winning the Belmont with the little-regarded Sarava.

Jenner recalled his ride aboard Curlin that night at Churchill Downs. “Curlin had worked a couple of half-miles, but he was just a big ol’ 2-year-old who had never been asked to do anything at that point,” he said. “Everything he’d done was on the bit. The race was only a quarter of a mile and he was bucking and rearing, and I was hanging on for dear life. So I not only got Curlin beat, I got him well beat.” But it at least gave him a taste of competition under race conditions.

As Curlin matured he began to convince Pitts and Jorgensen that he could be something special. They were expecting big things first time out, as, apparently, was everyone else, with Curlin being sent off as the 2-1 favorite. For a new trainer like Pitts, it’s a very fine line between joy and dread when a young 3-year-old runs off the screen in his debut. The crashing sound you usually hear afterwards is that of the rich folks breaking open their piggy banks. You know the million-dollar offers are going to start pouring in for that brilliant ready-made Derby horse, and that a sale is most likely going to result in the horse being given to the buyer’s trainer, especially if he’s Pletcher or Asmussen or Mott or Baffert.

So, when Curlin rocked the Derby trail in his debut, Pitts knew there was a good chance she could lose the horse. Ironically, at the time of Curlin’s victory, Steve Asmussen just happened to be stabled in her barn, preparing Leprechaun Racing’s Gunfight for the 6 1/2-furlong Swale Stakes, his only starter at the meet. Asmussen had recently lost his big Derby horse, Tiz Wonderful, owned by Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, to injury and had no idea how he was going to replace a horse of that caliber, one who was undefeated and had already won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Because Asmussen was stabled in Pitts’ barn, he had gotten to see Curlin close up on a daily basis and was impressed with everything he saw. When Curlin romped in his debut, it set the wheels in motion. Watching the race on simulcast at the Ocala Breeders 2-year-old sale was John Moynihan, who was Jess Jackson’s bloodstock manager. Watching from his home in San Francisco was owner George Bolton. Both had the same reaction – “Wow!” Asmussen after seeing the race, watched the colt cool out and said to himself, “We’ve got to get that horse.”

Bolton contacted someone at the Ragozin Sheets and found out Curlin had run a “5 3/4,” an extraordinary number for a first-time starter. The pieces were beginning to come together.

Moynihan knew that the offers would start to pour in for the colt, so he drove down to Gulfstream to see the horse and then contacted Cunningham and Gallion. As he figured, an offer had already come in, this one from Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, who offered $1.75 million, but, as Irwin put it, his bid was “blown out of the water” by subsequent bids. As it turned out, there were 15 bids on the horse, each with different stipulations.

Cunningham and Gallion wanted to stay in for a minority interest, and the day after the race, Super Bowl Sunday, Moynihan began negotiations, representing Jackson, Bolton, and another interested party, Satish Sanan. By 2 a.m. Monday morning, the deal was completed.

Although Cunningham and Gallion had received larger offers for the whole horse, the Moynihan group’s selling point was allowing them to stay in as minority partner.

The only thing left to be done was for Moynihan to look at Curlin on the racetrack to see how he had come out of the race and to make sure he was sound. So, Pitts brought him to the track that morning and when Curlin began bucking and squealing the deal was finalized for a reported $3.5 million. That would be the last time Pitts would lead him to the track.

Asmussen was delighted, having found his Derby horse. He felt everything was meant to be, because if Tiz Wonderful hadn’t gotten hurt, Jackson would not have been looking for a Derby horse to replace him, and, as he put it, he’d be trying to figure out how to beat Curlin instead of training him.

Pitts and Jorgensen were devastated, especially having to watch their dream horse depart after devoting so much time and effort getting him through some physical issues and becoming so close to him.

“I cried my eyes out when they sold him,” Jorgensen said shortly after the sale. “We babied him for such a long time. He bucked his shins twice and we tried to get him through it and worked hard with him. And then, one big race and he’s gone. We felt he was something special before he even started, we really did. I understand it’s hard to turn down that kind of money, and they did keep a piece of him, so it wasn’t hard for them. But it’s hard for us, because you get so attached to them.”

Curlin, of course, set off on his meteoric rise to stardom, winning the Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths and the Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths before finishing an excellent third in the Kentucky Derby after encountering traffic problems at a key point in the race which was a terrific effort considering it was only the fourth start of his life, and the last horse to win the Derby with only three starts was Regret in 1915.

Pitts and Jorgensen, meanwhile, had to move on, and they did have Einstein still in the barn. And it was Einstein, also owned by Cunningham and Gallion’s Midnight Cry Stable, who brought Pitts to Pimlico on Preakness Day to saddle the horse in the Dixie Stakes on the grass. As if it weren’t tough enough being stabled near Curlin and watching all the media flock to him and the Derby winner Street Sense, she had to then endure a horrific trip by Einstein.

When he moved up to challenge down the backstretch in the Dixie, a horse went down in front of him, causing Einstein to stumble so badly he unseated jockey Robby Albarado, who was also Curlin’s rider. So, here was Pitts having to watch Einstein run loose the rest of the race, returning with a grabbed quarter.

But her emotionally draining day was far from over. She then retreated to the hospitality tent at the end of the stakes barn and watched Curlin, who appeared to be beaten at the top of stretch, stage a sensational late rally to win the Preakness by a head over Street Sense. Although she wanted only the best for Curlin, having to suffer the anguish of Einstein’s misfortune and then see her dream horse win a classic for someone else had to tug hard at her emotions.

“I have mixed feelings,” Pitts said following the Preakness. She was trying hard to say the right things, but it was obvious she was struggling to deal with her feelings, especially the trauma of the Dixie and Einstein’s injury.

“Horses like this are hard to come by” she added,  “and I feel honored to have been a part of him at some point. But what can you do? It’s hard.”

Curlin went on to have a famed career winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Woodward Stakes and several other races, retiring in 2008 with record earnings of $10,501,800.

Now 15 years after losing one of the greatest horses of this century, Hanne Jorgensen, who has moved back to her native Norway, living outside Oslo, can only look back and be grateful for the part she and Pitts played in the emergence of Curlin as a superstar.

“It goes without saying that Curlin still ranks as number 1 in my heart,” she said. “I’m so happy that his career at stud has been so successful. Malathaat is just so impressive and I loved her Kentucky Oaks win in particular. Now I can’t wait to see how Nest will do. And of course Clairiere. It was hard to miss out on the great racing career he had, but it was special just to have been a small part of his beginning. I went to visit him early in his stud career and it was terrific to see how well he looked. I wish I could be at Keeneland and see his three daughters run.”

On a personal note, at the end of the month I will be visiting Curlin, as well as Violence and two of my favorites, Vox Populi Award winner Mucho Macho Man and champion Ghostzapper at Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa. Please note on October 22 there will be tours of the historic farm as part of’s Paris-Day Fest – one to visit the stallion barn and the rest of the farm and one just to visit the stallion barn. I for one am looking forward to seeing Curlin, knowing that in November he could very well be making history.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association/Coglianese, Hill ‘n” Dale Farm


Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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