Curlin just runs, leaves legal issues to owners

Posted: June 07, 2007

THE PHONE CALLS started almost as soon as the horse got to the winner's circle. Over the next 24 hours they continued almost nonstop.

On a February Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, where Kentucky Derby contender Nobiz Like Shobiz and 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor were running, the fourth race on the card, eight 3-year-old maidens running 7 furlongs was hardly the focus.

Until first-time starter Curlin ran out of the TV set.

Some callers were persistent, the next day's Super Bowl diverted others. But with the Super Bowl under way, one man kept trying to put together a deal for Curlin, concerned that if he waited, somebody else would do it. By the time the Super Bowl was done, so was the deal.

Bloodstock agent John Moynihan contacted one of his main clients, Jess Jackson, the Kendall-Jackson winery owner. Moynihan found prominent software mogul Satish Sanan traveling in India. He called investment adviser George Bolton in California. Moynihan had an offer ready for the Midnight Cry Stable of William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr., two Kentucky lawyers who had paid $57,000 for Curlin at a September 2005 horse sale.

The offer was $3.5 million for 80 percent ownership, placing the colt's value at $4.2 million. It was a huge gamble. Horses often run fast one time and disappear. Curlin has not disappeared.

Three months after the purchase, Curlin was second choice in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished third. Two weeks later, the colt won the most dramatic Preakness since Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer in 1989. Saturday, Curlin will be the favorite in the Belmont Stakes.

"He really grabs your attention," said the colt's trainer, Steve Asmussen. "There's a lot of him. He's very striking. He's got a ton of personality."

Asmussen became the trainer after the first race. Trainer Ken McPeek had purchased the horse originally. When he got out of the training business for a brief time, the colt went to his assistant, Helen Pitts.

Asmussen and the partners are now overseeing the most exciting horse in America.

"We could [eventually] be hailing Curlin as a super horse," said Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun, second in the Derby and third in the Preakness. "I feel like he has that potential."

Curlin won his first three starts by a combined 28 1/2 lengths. Then, the third in the Derby and the Preakness win. For a horse with that little experience to do all this in such a short period of time is unprecedented in the modern game.

The only thing the people around the horse have in common is Curlin. Even by horse racing standards, it's a strange alliance.

Cunningham, 52, and Gallion, 55, have had their law licenses suspended by the Kentucky Supreme Court after it was ruled that they had defrauded clients following a successful class-action lawsuit over the diet drug fen-phen. The judge ruled that the attorneys took more from the $200 million settlement than they were supposed to. A ruling on damages is expected shortly.

Curlin is now worth many multiples of that original value of $4.2 million. It is possible some of the fen-phen plaintiffs could go after the attorneys' share of Curlin. Or even the shares of some of the other partners. If that happens, it is for later.

For now, Jackson, 77, owns 31 percent of Curlin. The man who made a splash by spending nearly $22 million for 95 horses at the 2004 Keeneland September yearling sale now owns 150 broodmares, including Maggie Hawk, the dam of 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex. When Alex's Philly owners were putting together a deal to stand their horse at stud, Jackson got involved and became a major player.

Sanan, 57, who owns a nearly 600-acre farm in Ocala, Fla., has a 29 percent interest in Curlin. When he got into the business a decade ago, he got in strong. He has probably spent $150 million. In 2000, he spent $15 million on five yearlings. The horses earned barely $300,000 on the track.

In a you-better-have-your-eyes-wide-open business, Jackson and Sanan were widely considered suckers that were fair game for anybody looking for a piece of their action. Sanan eventually figured out he was being played and has called the sales "corrupt." Jackson has filed several lawsuits against advisers he thought were working on his behalf. He settled one for nearly $1 million

Welcome to horse racing.

Bolton, 44, owns 20 percent of Curlin. The night before the Preakness, he hosted all the partners at his family's farm in the horse country north of Baltimore.

Wherever they are going and however they got here, they are all here now - with a trainer who won a world-record 555 races in 2004 and was suspended for 6 months last year after a horse he trained tested positive for mepivacaine, a local anesthetic. That horse finished eighth in the race at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana.

And there is also this: The colt is named after Cunningham's great grandfather, a former slave named Charles Curlin who fought in the Civil War for the Union.

"I have been thinking all day and wondering if my great grandfather was looking down at this horse," Cunningham said after the Preakness. "I think he may have reached down and pulled our horse's nose across the line."

Really, you can't make this stuff up. Only in horse racing.

Curlin will face six others, including Hard Spun, in the Belmont. The post positions in the mile-and-a-half race are basically irrelevant as there is more than enough time and space for the horses to sort themselves out.

When they hit the finish line, absolutely nobody is going to be surprised if this eclectic partnership is making its way to the winner's circle as the proud owners of a horse that nobody outside of his original trainer's barn had heard of before that winter afternoon at Gulfstream Park. *

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