The Curlin Stakes is the red-headed step-brother of the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2).

The Curlin gets no respect. Every year during this week, people berate the lesser-heralded event’s existence. The masses will cry, “Why do we need this race? All of these horses should just run in the Jim Dandy and we’d have a huge field and an awesome betting race!”

People are missing the fact that the Curlin has its own purpose. The Curlin is “FOR THREE YEAR OLDS WHICH HAVE NOT WON A GRADED SWEEPSTAKES OVER A MILE IN 2019.” I didn’t put that in ALL CAPS myself; that’s how it appears in the condition book.

The Curlin provides a stepping stone for late-developing horses, or those coming back from an extended layoff to get a confidence builder, and not face off against the heavy hitters from the Triple Crown trail that run in the Jim Dandy. It allows them the opportunity to run against a competitive field on the way to a possible try at the Travers Stakes (G1) in four weeks.

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Last year, Hofburg needed a confidence-booster after tough runs in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. He won the Curlin and looked prime to be a top choice in the Travers until an illness caught after the Curlin sidelined him.

Back in 2016, Connect used the Curlin as a stepping-stone to wins in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) and the Cigar Mile (G1) later that year. In 2014, a lightly-raced horse named V. E. Day won the Curlin in his fifth career start at 8/1 odds. The Jimmy Jerkens trainee parlayed that win into a Travers triumph at 20/1.

Going back to 2009, the first time that this race was run as the Curlin, a horse named Blame won in his fifth career start. Blame would go on to win the Clark Handicap (G1) that year before famously beating the great Zenyatta by a head in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic to end his career.

Would these horses have been as successful if they were forced to run in the Jim Dandy, instead of the Curlin? We’ll never know, but we do know that the Curlin does have a purpose, and this year, a very competitive field of nine will square off in one of the best betting races of the young Saratoga season. I previewed the Jim Dandy field in my last Saratoga Skinny column, so let’s delve deep into the Curlin field in this one!

Connect before winning the Curlin Stakes, which he used as a stepping stone to a stud career (Photo: Michael Spector)

Top Juveniles Back as Strong Sophomores

The 2019 Curlin field is highlighted by a group of horses who showed great promise as 2-year-olds last year, but then needed time off in the winter and missed the Triple Crown trail. This includes Rowayton, Cairo Cat, Endorsed, and Looking At Bikinis.

Graded stakes-placed twice as a juvenile last year (each time behind the eventual juvenile champion Game Winner), Rowayton is an intriguing prospect from newly-returned trainer Don Chatlos. Chatlos was in New York to run Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s barn when the New York Racing Association stated that entries from Hollendorfer would no longer be accepted, a decision stemming from the Stronach Group’s earlier ban of Hollendorfer at their tracks. Chatlos ran Rowayton in the Dwyer Stakes (G3) under his own name, the first time that he was the listed trainer in 11 years. Rowayton was coming off of a strong allowance win at Belmont Park against elders.

“He was a little bit (impeded in the stretch),” Chatlos said about Rowayton’s run in the Dwyer. “(Joel) Rosario saved ground the whole way and then tried to get the hole (inside) turning for home, which won him the allowance race, the race before, but he just got stopped there and then got stopped again in mid-stretch, which probably cost him second. It happens when you save ground like that; it’s not always going to open up.”

Rowayton should be one of the more forwardly-placed horses in the Curlin.

“He has good tactical speed,” Chatlos said. “He’s been in front in all of his races as a 2-year-old, and then you can throw out the race at Oaklawn in the mud (his 2019 debut on April 13). He just never had a chance there. He rated for Rosario on the inside on the rail really nice in the allowance race, and then when that hole opened on the rail, he took off and finished through. I don’t think he’s a horse you’re going to see taken back because he has the tactical speed. He’s the kind of horse you want. He’s going to lay whatever way the race shape is. He’ll be able to lay close, but if they’re going really fast, he’ll be able to sit a little further off of them.”

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A horse that likes to be taken back early and is returning from a long layoff is the only graded stakes winner in the field, Cairo Cat, who won the Iroquois Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs last September. The Kenny McPeek trainee was hurt and missed the Triple Crown trail and is back from a 314-day absence. Cairo Cat likes Saratoga; he broke his maiden here last August going 7 furlongs on the main track in a race that got rained off of the turf.

Another impressive juvenile with a win over the track last summer is Endorsed, who next ran a disappointing sixth in the Champagne Stakes (G1) for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The son of Medaglio d’Oro, out of the 2012 Gazelle Stakes (G1)-winning mare Dance Card, returned in mid-June with a late-charging win at Belmont Park against elders is a major Curlin threat.

Looking At Bikinis looked like a freak when winning his debut at Belmont Park last September by 5 3/4 lengths for Saratoga’s perennial leading trainer Chad Brown, but then he needed time off. He defeated the graded stakes-placed Not That Brady in a Belmont Park allowance event in June. His workman-like victory by a 1/2-length should definitely have him primed for a big race Friday.

Rowayton in his Saratoga stall at the Chatlos barn (Photo: Michael Spector)

The Late Developers

With the juvenile form that those four showed in 2018, it’s tough to look much farther in the Curlin, but this field is deep with talent.

As I said earlier, this is a great spot for horses that needed a layoff or are emerging, late-developing 3-year-olds. This year’s field has three who were unraced as juveniles and can step up here.

Though he already has Looking At Bikinis in the Curlin field, it’s Saratoga and he’s Chad Brown, so why not add another up-and-comer in the gate? That’s what he has done with Highest Honors. He broke his maiden second-out at Belmont Park to start June, and top jock Jose Ortiz retains the mount for this son of Tapit’s third lifetime start when he leaves from the 8 post.

Not to be outdone, trainer Todd Pletcher has the talented but under-performing Intrepid Heart leaving from the rail under Hall-of-Famer John Velazquez. After breaking his maiden at Oaklawn Park and winning an optional claimer at Keeneland (both in impressive fashion), Intrepid Heart was a top candidate to blossom in the Triple Crown races. His disappointing third in the Peter Pan Stakes (G3) and eighth in the Belmont Stakes left his connections wondering if he would ever reach the promise that he showed early in his career.

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“He’s been doing well since the Belmont and, watching his works, he’s been progressing,” Pletcher told the NYRA recently about Intrepid Heart. “We’ll take our shot in here with him and see how it goes.”

The third horse in the Curlin field that was unraced as a juvenile is Mo Gotcha, for trainer Jeremiah Englehart. The gelded son of Uncle Mo broke his maiden on debut at Aqueduct in April, but he only finished third in two subsequent races at Belmont Park.

The field is rounded out with Direct Order, who ran third in the Pegasus Stakes behind King for a Day and the recent Haskell Stakes (G1) winner Maximum Security, and Grumps Little Tots, who was third in the Easy Goer Stakes last out.

Grumps Little Tots in the paddock before he ran ninth in the Wood Memorial (Photo: Michael Spector)

Curlin Bets

Based on the projected pace scenario, Rowayton may have the early lead in the Curlin, with Looking At Bikinis and Mo Gotcha keeping him company in the first flight. The pace shouldn’t be blazing hot, but it should favor horses in the front pack. Both Rowayton and Looking At Bikinis should still be around late.

Endorsed looked just too good in his return race to leave off of tickets here and will be charging home late. Intrepid Heart is taking the biggest class drop of all of the horses in this race and there is no question about him handling the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Curlin – unlike Rowayton, Looking At Bikinis, and Endorsed, who are all running this long for the first time.

Right now, I’m leaning on Looking At Bikinis as the top play, but mixing Rowayton, Endorsed, and Intrepid Heart into my trifecta and superfecta plays is the approach that I’ll likely take in this open affair.

Follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for live on-site coverage for both the Curlin (Friday) and the Jim Dandy (Saturday) cards. If you’re going to be at Saratoga for either or both days, please let me know! You can meet up with me, the Racing Dudes, and Mike Somich, co-host of The Magic Mike Show podcast.

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Bonus: Instagrand Back In Training

While I was at Chatlos’ barn discussing Rowayton, I also checked out my first-round draft pick from this year’s Fantasy Triple Crown league, the Best Pal Stakes (G2)-winning Instagrand.

“There are no plans for Instagrand,” Chatlos said. “Mr. (Larry) Best (his owner who races under OXO Equine) just said, ‘Let’s get him in, let’s get him going, and he’s going to tell us when.’ He looks great. He’s doing really well and we’ll just take our time. He’s jogging, but he wants to do more.”

Instagrand was most recently the favorite in the Pat Day Mile Stakes (G3) on the Kentucky Derby undercard, but an injury was found after.

“He came out of (the Pat Day Mile) with a little chip off the top of a hind sesamoid,” Chatlos said. “They equate it to a pebble in your shoe. It was a ‘nothing’ surgery. (The surgeon) was very happy with the way he came out of it, so we gave him the 60 days off. They actually recommended 45 days, but Mr. Best wanted to give him 15 days more, and now we got him back.”

It’ll be great to have Instagrand back on the track and see if he can fulfill the great promise that he showed early in his career.

Instagrand in the Chatlos barn at Saratoga (Photo: Michael Spector)