Curlin would have been a great star regardless of when he was born.
He was that good.
Stonestreet Stables’ son of Smart Strike was a two-time Horse of the Year who retired as North America’s all-time leading earner and later was voted into the Hall of Fame. He won the Preakness, in just his fifth career start, then added victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup twice.
He was a champion who dominated the sport ... except for those spring days in 2007 when he faced two fellow members of his 3-year-old crop, Street Sense and Hard Spun.
For much of that year, the difference between Curlin, Street Sense, and Hard Spun was paper thin as they engaged in a series of memorable clashes and proved themselves to be as good of a trio of 3-year-olds as the sport has ever seen.
“It was a tough year for the other 3-year-olds,” said Larry Jones, who trained Hard Spun, in 2017. “Back then in 2007 they were saying Hard Spun, Street Sense, and Curlin were as good of a group of 3-year-olds since 1957 when there was Bold Ruler, Round Table, and Gallant Man. All three of them turned out to be good sires and they are still successful at stud. It’s nice to know that 10 years later everyone still holds that class in such a high regard.
“It was a tremendous crop and I haven’t seen that kind of depth since then. There have been some great horses, but not as many as there were in 2007. I know if Hard Spun had been born a year later, he would have been a Triple Crown winner. Big Brown would have wanted no part of Hard Spun.”
Curlin was eventually crowned champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year in 2007, but it was a wild heavyweight title fight that was not decided until the very last round and sparked intense debate for much of the year about whom was the best of the big three.
The warriors were:
- Curlin, a winner of six of nine starts in 2007 who closed out his career with 11 wins in 16 races and earnings of $10,501,800, trained by Steve Asmussen.
- Street Sense, the 2-year-old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner of 2006, victor in the Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes, and beaten by a head in the Preakness, trained by Carl Nafzger.
- Hard Spun, winner of the King’s Bishop, Kentucky Cup Classic, Lane’s End, and Lecomte Stakes at 3 and second in the Kentucky Derby, Haskell Invitational, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, trained by Jones.
Street Sense and Hard Spun were retired after the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic, yet the memory of the trio’s six meetings – three involving all three of them – at 3 promises to live on for years to come.
“They were three of the best colts that ever competed against each other in the Triple Crown. They showed up every time for every race and took turns winning and finishing second,” said Barbara Banke, whose late husband, Jess Jackson, owned Curlin. “It was really fabulous. I enjoy those memories.”
As fierce as the rivalry may have been on the racetrack, there was nothing but respect and admiration among the connections as their horses battled in the year’s most important races.
Jones said his mother called Nafzger “her favorite trainer” and Asmussen said if there was any other horse he would have liked to train that year it was Hard Spun.
“I had nothing but respect for Carl and Larry and their horses,” Asmussen said. “Hats off to all of them.”
The first time the three rivals squared off came on a fitting stage.
It was the first Saturday in May when they played the leading roles in the Kentucky Derby.
Owner Jim Tafel’s Street Sense was the favorite at odds of 4.90-to-1 that day at Churchill Downs, but there was some apprehension after he finished second on a synthetic surface in the Blue Grass.
Yet that loss did not sway the confidence of Nafzger, who trained Street Sense.
“We thought our horse was ready,” said Nafzger, who had won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs a year earlier with his Derby favorite. “We thought we could win the race, if we got the trip.”
Curlin, trained by Steve Asmussen, was the second choice by a miniscule margin, going off at 5-1. He came into the Derby with a perfect 3-for-3 record, having won the Arkansas Derby by 10 ½ lengths and Rebel Stakes prior to that.
Hard Spun, owned by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, was the fourth choice at 10-1. He lacked a Grade 1 win and turned in his final Derby prep when he captured the Grade 2 Lane’s End Stakes on a synthetic surface at Turfway Park.
“We had to accept that Street Sense and Curlin were the favorites over us,” Jones said. “I saw Curlin break his maiden and I was in awe. Street Sense was the 2-year-old champion, so we were just hoping that the progression we saw in our horse would continue.”
When the starting gates opened, jockey Mario Pino wasted no time in taking Hard Spun to the front as the Pennsylvania-bred son of Danzig carved out quick early fractions of 22.96 and 46.26 seconds with longshots Cowtown Cat, Teuflesberg, and Stormello in closest pursuit.
Meanwhile, Street Sense and Curlin were lingering at the back of the 20-horse field. After being steadied early, Curlin was 13th after the opening half-mile, while Borel guided Street Sense from post seven to the rail shortly after the break and was content to keep the Eclipse Award winner in 19th during the early stages.
On the turn, Hard Spun drew clear and opened a three-length lead at the quarter pole that had Jones believing something magical was about to happen.
“When Hard Spun sprinted away in the lane, I said ‘Oh my gosh.’ I got weak-kneed,” Jones said.
Yet as strong as Hard Spun looked on the lead, along the rail Street Sense was rolling at a high speed, gaining ground with every stride.
Approaching the eighth pole, Street Sense collared Hard Spun and then drew clear to a 2 ¼-length victory.
Well behind them, Curlin found his best stride too late and rallied to grab third, 5 ¾ lengths behind Hard Spun.
“Calvin got the perfect trip that we dreamed about,” said Nafzger, who notched his second Kentucky Derby victory, following Unbridled’s 1990 triumph.
Two weeks later, the trio moved on to the Preakness at Pimlico, where Street Sense was a heavy 6-5 favorite to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive.
Surprisingly, Hard Spun broke slowly and did not grab the early lead, stalking Xchanger and Flying First Class from third. Curlin and Street Sense were once again at the back, trailing by 13 and 15 lengths, respectively, after the opening half-mile.
Approaching the final turn, Pino made his move aboard Hard Spun and grabbed a two-length lead after six furlongs in a swift 1:09.80.
On the turn, Curlin launched a strong, wide move that carried him into third behind Hard Spun and CP West at the top of the stretch. Yet behind him, Street Sense was in the midst of even more powerful move. Coming off the rail, the Derby winner surged through an opening between the three horses in front of him and quickly spurted away to a length and a half lead at the eighth pole.
A Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes seemed assured, but then something that ignites the passion in fans of horse racing took place. What happened is still debated to this day. Did the heart in Curlin take over? Did Street Sense pull himself up after reaching the lead? Did Borel become overconfident? Was it a combination of all three?
Whatever the reason, under urging from jockey Robby Albarado, Curlin chewed into Street Sense’s lead in the final sixteenth of a mile, creating a pulsating stretch duel that was captured perfectly by the animated call from NBC announcer Tom Durkin.
“Hard Spun trying to gut it out. Here comes Street Sense into the breach and on through to the lead. And Curlin’s to his outside. Street Sense in front at the eighth pole. Curlin giving his all a length and a half behind … Coming to the finish, Street Sense. Here comes Curlin. Curlin surging. Street Sense in deep water. Too close to call! Too close to call!”
At the wire, Curlin poked his head in front as the finish line arrived a few yards too late for Street Sense.
Hard Spun was another four lengths back in third.
“Curlin was such a strong horse. I can’t compare him to any other horse I’ve been around, especially in regards to how he came out of races,” Asmussen said. “That made me confident heading into the Preakness off the two weeks rest, and his ability to cover the mile and three-sixteenths in 1:53.46 and battle back in the stretch like he did shows how talented he was.”
Years later, Nafzger still laments a missed opportunity to chase a Triple Crown sweep.
“We made our move and shot to the lead and I thought it was all over,” Nafzger said. “But if you looked at the Breeders’ Futurity (at 2) when he got to the lead, he started messing around. He wouldn’t quit, but he lost that momentum, that push. I didn’t expect Curlin to make that run, but he came flying. They figured him out for the Preakness and he wasn’t an easy one to figure out. It was a good ride by Calvin, but we moved too quick.”
With a Triple Crown bid derailed, Nafzger and Tafel decided to skip the Belmont and target the Travers at Saratoga as Street Sense’s main summer objective.
“Mr. Tafel liked the Travers and it was always my favorite race, so we made a decision to go there. We had nothing to gain by going to the Belmont. Something to lose, but nothing to gain,” Nafzger said.
Curlin and Hard Spun moved on to Belmont Park for the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion," but with only two-thirds of the big three on hand, trainer Todd Pletcher took a gamble and entered Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches in the Belmont.
The decision paid off quite handsomely for Pletcher.
Curlin was sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the Belmont, with Rags to Riches the 4-1 second choice. Hard Spun, the 9-2 third choice, had a new rider in the Belmont as Jones opted for Garrett Gomez in place of Pino.
Jones said he told Gomez to put Hard Spun on the lead, but, much like Preakness, Hard Spun was reserved in third in the early stages, this time racing wide through six furlongs in a dawdling 1:15 1/5, and ultimately came up empty in the stretch.
That turned the Belmont into an elongated sprint to the wire, which in which Rags to Riches had a tactical edge on the outside. Curlin was stuck inside of the front-running C P West for a while, but at the five-sixteenths pole he shot through a seam to challenge Rags to Riches who had swept to a short lead.
The two dueled through Belmont’s stretch and the filly never let Curlin get ahead of her. Though Curlin once again showed his grit in the final yards, Rags to Riches held on to the lead, prevailing by a head as Durkin proclaimed “It’s going to be a filly in the Belmont!”
Rags to Riches was the first filly to capture the Belmont since Tanya in 1905 and gave Pletcher his first Triple Crown win.
Hard Spun wound up fourth.
“Nothing in that Belmont made sense to us,” Jones said.
While Street Sense used the time away from his Triple Crown foes to win the Jim Dandy and then the Travers, Curlin and Hard Spun tackled each other again in the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth Park.
The fans again backed Curlin and sent him off as a 4-5 favorite, and Hard Spun, reunited with Pino, was the 9-2 third-choice.
But it was the 9-5 second choice Any Given Saturday, winner of the Grade 2 Dwyer and eighth in the Kentucky Derby, who capitalized on a day when neither of the Triple Crown protagonists turned in their best race. Ridden by Gomez, Any Given Saturday pulled away in the stretch to record a 4 ½-length victory for Pletcher.
Hard Spun edged Curlin for the place spot by a head, in the process becoming the first - and ultimately only – horse to finish ahead of Curlin twice.
After the Haskell, Curlin was rested for a fall campaign but Jones seized an opportunity to get his horse a coveted Grade 1 win. He entered Hard Spun on Travers Day at Saratoga, but not in the "Mid-Summer Derby." Instead the Fox Hill Farms colt ran in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop (which has been re-named the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes) and registered a length and a half victory to further illustrate the class and quality of the big three.
“We wanted a Grade 1 win and I told Rick if we don’t have face Street Sense or Curlin, we’ll win a Grade 1,” Jones said. “So we went for the King’s Bishop. Everyone said he couldn’t turn back to seven furlongs, but it was no issue. He was rolling in the King’s Bishop.”
As impressive as victories in the King’s Bishop and Travers were for the resumes of the big three, it was taken to an even higher level during the final weekend of September.
Street Sense and Hard Spun met in a rare non-Triple Crown meeting of the top two finishers in the Kentucky Derby when they faced off in the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park. Contested on a synthetic surface, Hard Spun led at each call and cruised to a 1 ¼-length win over Street Sense.
The next day, though, Curlin carried the banner for the 3-year-old crop against older horses in the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and turned the balance of power in favor of the sophomores.
Lawyer Ron, coming off back-to-back wins in the Whitney and Woodward by a combined 13 lengths, was the strong 3-5 favorite, while Curlin was the 2-1 second choice. The betting public had the two best horses in the field scoped out, but not the winner.
Between the Haskell and Gold Cup, Curlin finally came of age. In one of his best performances, Curlin dueled with Lawyer Ron in the final furlong and notched a neck victory in the sharp time of 2:01.20 for the mile and a quarter.
“The Gold Cup was the culmination of the upward trajectory he was on,” Asmussen said. “This was a horse that had started his career in February of that year and the Gold Cup took him to the next level. It proved how much more horse he became with time by the end of 2007.”
Afterward, the Breeders’ Cup Classic was painted as the race that would decide Horse of the Year. A victory seemed to be enough to sway the vote in the direction of Curlin, Street Sense, or Hard Spun, and Lawyer Ron and Any Given Saturday were in the mix as well.
Each of the big three trained sharply for their final showdown.
“I didn’t think Street Sense would get beat in the Breeders’ Cup,” Nafzger said.
There seemed to be no excuses, until Mother Nature joined the fray.
The two days the Breeders’ Cup spent at Monmouth Park were marked by rain, rain and more rain. Though the sun broke through the clouds during the running of the Classic, the damage to the track had been done. It was a sloppy sea of goo that seemed destined to have a major say on the outcome.
Back on dirt, Street Sense was the 5-2 favorite. Any Given Saturday and Lawyer Ron were 7-2, with Curlin 4-1 and Hard Spun an overlooked 8-1.
Pino took Hard Spun right to the front, opening a clear lead on the backstretch. On the turn, Street Sense and Curlin took runs at Hard Spun, setting the stage for what loomed an epic stretch duel, but only one of them was able to maintain his momentum.
“When you run in the mud, you never know what will happen,” Nafzger said. “We started our move, but by the quarter pole we were going nowhere. We had a great run with Street Sense and it would have been great to go out with a win in the Classic, but what can you do? That’s horse racing.”
As Street Sense remained in neutral, Curlin surged at Hard Spun, catching him before the eighth pole and pulling away to a decisive 4 ½-length victory that made Eclipse Award voting academic and gave him two wins in the three meetings of the big three.
“I could not have been more confident going into the Classic,” Asmussen said. “I don’t think there was any question about how good he had become at that point.”
Hard Spun held on for second, 4 ¾ lengths ahead of Awesome Gem. Street Sense settled for fourth.
The following year Hard Spun and Street Sense headed to stud; Street Sense with six wins in 13 starts and earnings of $4.3 million, and Hard Spun with 7 wins in 13 starts and earnings of $2.6 million. Curlin continued his Hall of Fame career for one more season and represented the exceptional 3-year-old Class of 2007 with brilliance.
Looking back, not only did the big three dominate the Triple Crown races, but collectively they took it a step further and shined as the year rolled on, making them stars for all seasons.
“If Street Sense would have run third in the Breeders’ Cup it would have been first time horses ran 1-2-3 in the Derby, 1-2-3 in the Preakness and 1-2-3 in the Breeders’ Cup. Larry and Steve kidded me about messing that up,” Nafzger said. “That shows how unusual it was to have a few 3-year-olds that good and that competitive throughout the year.
“It was a great rivalry, but I wouldn’t have minded if Curlin and Hard Spun came around a year later,” he added with a laugh. “You could only imagine what one would have done without the other two around. Each one was special.”
Special horses, who gave the sport special memories. There can be no arguments about that.
Note: This story was originally published in June 2017 and has been updated.