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Curlin heavy favorite today
Associated Press
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Published: 6/14/2008 12:11 AM

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A week ago, with Big Brown on the cusp of the first Triple Crown in 30 years, Curlin trainer Steve Asmussen said he'd be curious to see how the current Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion would stack up against the 2007 Horse of the Year.

Asmussen wasn't the only one.

Suffolk Downs offered a $5 million purse in the Massachusetts Handicap if Big Brown won the Triple Crown and both horses entered the MassCap, with $1 million guaranteed to each just for showing up.

One Belmont flop by Big Brown later, such a showdown now looks like a mismatch.

The 4-year-old Curlin, who is undefeated this year and coming off a record 7¾-length win in the $6 million Dubai World Cup in March, will be a heavy favorite today in the $1 million Stephen Foster Handicap, with the emphasis on heavy.

Racing officials have saddled Curlin with 128 pounds, at least 10 pounds heavier than the other nine horses in the field for the 1-mile race at Churchill Downs. Asmussen, however, doesn't see the weight assignment as a symbol of respect for Curlin's dominance.

"Weight matters; that's why they're doing it," he said. "How much is too much? That's what they're trying to find out."

The way Curlin has raced over the last year, putting a middle linebacker on his back might not be enough to slow him down. He carried 126 pounds in the World Cup, and 132 pounds while winning the Jaguar Trophy by 2¾ lengths in February.

It will be Curlin's first race back at Churchill Downs since finishing third behind Street Sense in last year's Kentucky Derby. The long journey from Dubai has taken some of the shine off American horses in the past, and Asmussen is anxious about how his horse will respond.

"You just want indications that he's back, that he's over the trip," he said. "We don't want to take anything for granted as far as what going to Dubai did for him as far as how much it might have taken out of him."

If his workouts over the past six weeks are any indication, Curlin appears to be just fine.

"I think he's got a better understanding," Asmussen said. "He doesn't have the curiosity doing the same thing. There's an assuredness mentally that he knows where he's at."

Curlin received a warm welcome during a cameo appearance on the track on Derby Day, and his return has given the Foster a boost. The track threw in an extra $250,000 to lure other Grade I winners to the race. But if Curlin is on his game, runner-up might be the only thing up for grabs.

Einstein, who won the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on the Derby undercard, is a stalwart on grass but has run on dirt just twice in his career. He's the second morning-line choice at 5-1 along with Grasshopper, runner-up to Street Sense in the 2007 Travers Stakes. The only other single-digit shot is 7-year-old Brass Hat.

Asmussen knows how rare it is to be able to run a champion horse at the age of 4. While former rivals Street Sense and Hard Spun bolted to the breeding shed following the end of their 3-year-old campaigns last fall, Curlin's owner Jess Jackson has kept the horse out on the track.

Jackson has pledged to run Curlin through the end of 2008, but Asmussen is quiet about the horse's future beyond the Foster.

"I have all kinds of ideas in my head," he said. "But I think we have to answer the question of where he's at before we proceed."

How he runs won't be the only question that will determine when -- or even if -- Curlin races again.

A minority stake in Curlin's ownership remains clouded. The horse's original owners, suspended attorneys William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr., were sued by 440 former clients, who claim the men intentionally mishandled a $200 million diet-drug settlement.

A state judge has awarded the former clients $42 million and has indicated he will force the sale of Curlin along with other assets to settle the debt. Gallion and Cunningham bought Curlin for $57,000 in 2005.

Gallion and Cunningham sold an 80 percent interest in Curlin to a group led by Jackson, the founder of Kendall-Jackson Winery and owner of Stonestreet Stables, and his wife, Barbara Banke, last February. Jackson has since bought out two partners.

Gallion, Cunningham and suspended attorney Melbourne Mills, who had no stake in the horse, are on trial in federal court in Covington, Ky., and charged with fraud. Federal prosecutors say the men took money from the settlement that should have gone to clients.

If the lawyers are forced to sell the remaining 20 percent to Jackson -- who has the right of first refusal -- it would clear the way for Jackson to sell the horse's breeding rights. The deal could rival the reported $50 million agreement between IEAH Stables, which owns Big Brown, and Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky.

Asmussen doesn't treat every race like it's Curlin's last, but he knows the chances to watch one of the top horses of the last 20 years are dwindling. He's trying to enjoy it while he can.

"Just to be around him and watch him train is a blessing," Asmussen said. "It's funny how it makes me feel when I get to see him. I think (I'm) appreciative of the opportunity."