OCEANPORT, N.J. --There they were, the three superstars of the 3-year-old class, coming down the stretch, sloshing through the mud that was so saturated it was called sloppy, separating themselves from the rest of the field in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
And when the race was over, it was the amazing Curlin who emerged victorious in a Monmouth Park track record-tying time of 2 minutes, .59 of a second, with Hard Spun 4 1/2 lengths back.
Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, the betting favorite, finished fourth, one length behind Awesome Gem, a 4-year-old who used the race's speed to generate one big closing run for third .
"I've been watching horse racing since 1939," said Jess Jackson, who owns Curlin with Satish Sanan and George Bolton, a Baltimore native. "This generation of horses and the competition and quality of Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, Street Sense, Lawyer Ron and Awesome Gem, those horses are exceptional.
"So he's a champion of champions."
Saying that Curlin has yet to show his full potential, Jackson said he believes him to be "one of the best in the last century or half-century."
After more than three days of rain, the weather cleared during the afternoon, much to the delight of the 41,781, who wagered $12,726,622 at the track. Off-track wagering brought the total handle to a bountiful $99,177,063.
But it was not a perfect day. George Washington, the two-time European champion who was running on dirt for only the second time and on mud for the first time in his career, had to be euthanized on the track after the Classic. He broke down with an eighth of a mile to go.
Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith, who with Dr. Larry Bramlage were the on-call veterinarians, said the horse sustained an open fracture of the cannon bone in the right front fetlock joint and shattered his leg, breaking both sesamoids, cutting off all blood supply.
"It was a hopeless injury," McIlwraith said.
Bramlage said George Washington's trainer, Aiden O'Brien, recognizing the nature of the injury, "asked us to euthanize him on the race track."
George Washington, a 4-year-old, was bred by Lael Stables, who also bred and raced the late 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. On the day Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby, George Washington won one of Europe's biggest races, the Grade I 2000 Guineas.
"He did well to stay up," said his jockey, Michael Kinane. "He was brave. He didn't go down. He stayed up on it and he saved me [from injury]."
At the finish line, however, all eyes were on the big red horse. Six months ago Curlin was entering just the fourth race of his career and critics were everywhere, debating how he could be ready on such short training.
But Curlin finished a strong third behind Street Sense and Hard Spun in the Kentucky Derby, and three weeks later won the Preakness in a to-the-wire duel. Two weeks after that, he lost a to-the-wire duel by the same nose to the filly Rags to Riches in a historic Belmont Stakes.
Curlin "looked the best of all of us," said Larry Jones, Hard Spun's trainer. "My horse ran well and I'm very pleased, but all year it has been these three, back and forth, beating each other. Today, Curlin ran by him nice. My horse tried to hook him when he came by, but though he kept trying, he just couldn't keep up."
It was the same for Street Sense. Jockey Calvin Borel said the big red horse simply outran them.
"Curlin ran a beautiful race," Borel said. "At the quarter pole, I thought I would go with him, but he just kicked away. ... Curlin is the genuine article."
When the Horse of the Year voting is complete, Curlin is expected to be the first Preakness winner since Sunday Silence in 1989 to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and Horse of the Year. He would also be the first Preakness winner since Point Given in 2001 to win the Preakness and the top horse award.
As Curlin trainer Steve Asmussen watched yesterday's race unfold, he wasn't really surprised to see Hard Spun and Street Sense surrounding his horse. And when the race was over, he wasn't surprised to see who had won.
"We've been watching Hard Spun, Curlin and Street Sense all year," he said. "They never looked weak. They looked sound. They looked strong. And they looked fast. Every time you saw them, you expected them to show up. I think these three horses are better than the rest.
"But Curlin is something special. He won a Grade III race off his maiden race. You're looking to compare him with something else and there's just not another horse to compare him with."
Horse Win Place Show
(4) Curlin $10.80 5.20 4.20
(8) Hard Spun $7.60 5.80
(6) Awesome Gem $9.40
Exacta (4-8): $70.80. Trifecta (4-8-6): $645.30. Time of race: 2:00.59.
Also ran: Street Sense, Tiago, Any Given Saturday, Lawyer Ron, Diamond Stripes, George Washington (euthanized after race).