Flashback: Curlin beats the 'Dubai Bounce' in Stephen Foster

By J. Keeler Johnson, Special to HRN
June 12, 2019 10:28am
Flashback: Curlin beats the 'Dubai Bounce' in Stephen Foster
Photo: Courtesy of Churchill Downs

They call it the “Dubai Bounce.” The phrase has been around for years, coming into vogue shortly after the creation of the Dubai World Cup. American horses would often travel overseas to compete in lucrative races offering impressive purse money, but — so the belief went — they would struggle to regain their best form upon returning to the United States.

The “Dubai Bounce” theory has faded somewhat in recent years as more and more top-class horses have returned from their long journeys unaffected. A poster child for the new movement was Curlin, the brilliant 2007 Horse of the Year who dominated the 2008 Dubai World Cup by a record-breaking 7 3/4 lengths.

When the 4-year-old son of Smart Strike returned to the U.S., trainer Steve Asmussen targeted the Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) at Churchill Downs for Curlin’s next start. No one questioned Curlin’s talent, or his status as the Stephen Foster favorite, but could he really secure a Grade 1 win just 2 1/2 months after his romp in Dubai?

Surely it would be a tricky task. After all, Curlin would face a classy field in the Stephen Foster while carrying top weight of 128 pounds, 10 to 15 more than his nine rivals. And he would do so while breaking from post position one, introducing the possibility of a traffic-filled trip. Toss in the potential for a “Dubai Bounce,” and a victory for Curlin seemed far from assured.

Despite these challenges, Curlin and jockey Robby Albarado were completely relaxed during the early stages of the Stephen Foster. Starting from the rail proved to be no issue — they casually settled back in seventh place during the run to the first turn — then snuck through an opening along the inside to sit fourth while longshot Barcola carved out slow fractions of :25.01, :49.28 and 1:13.41.

The slow pace might have caused some jockeys to panic, but Albarado bided his time until an opening appeared on the far turn. Then he guided Curlin to the outside, urged him to accelerate, and settled down for the ride as Curlin kicked into overdrive and blew past Barcola with powerful strides.



Never mind the 128-pound impost. Forget the long trip to Dubai and back. Curlin’s brilliance was more than enough to overcome the obstacles, and he pulled away under a hand ride down the homestretch to win by 4 1/4 lengths over Einstein, a three-time Grade 1 winner who would add the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap (G1) to his resume the following year. Even though Einstein was carrying just 118 pounds, ten less than Curlin, he couldn’t begin to match strides with the champ down the homestretch.

“Great, phenomenal; he’s an amazing horse,” Albarado told Churchill Downs after the race. “Again with his routine brilliance, he is in textbook form. He’s showing that he is a superstar. He prevailed for the fans and I’m proud of him. He’s an amazing horse — amazing athlete.”

Steve Asmussen echoed Albarado’s praise for the reigning Horse of the Year, saying, “It’s such an honor to be involved with this horse. He is such a beautiful animal.”

By the end of 2008, Curlin had added victories in the Woodward Stakes (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) to his record, in the process becoming the first horse in North American racing history to surpass $10 million in earnings. A second Horse of the Year title was Curlin’s reward — not bad for a horse who should have been hampered by the “Dubai Bounce."

 

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