ELMONT, N.Y. -- A few days before the Kentucky Derby, Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, considered the then-mystery horse Curlin and suggested that, in a few months, everyone might be looking at the big, red 3-year-old as a super horse.
Yesterday, standing in the early morning sun at Belmont Park shortly after Curlin had galloped by - with his coat glowing and his head cocked to the side in that special way he has - retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey found himself speechless when asked what might prevent Curlin from winning tomorrow's 139th Belmont Stakes.
After standing silent for a long time, Bailey smiled ruefully.
"It's ridiculous not to have an answer," said Bailey, now a television racing commentator. "We all know every horse can be beaten. But I really like Curlin.
"I guess there is concern that he doesn't have as good a foundation as the other horses, but he's still a fresh horse with a good enough foundation."
It was a reach for Bailey, because people aren't talking about Curlin's weak foundation anymore. That was the knock on him going into the Derby. He had raced only three times as a 3-year-old and not at all at age 2.
The 20-horse Derby field unmasked some of the flaws that come from thin experience - he broke badly from the gate and then had to cope for the first time with flying dirt that all but smothered him in the early going. But despite the setbacks, Curlin rallied. The big engine roared through the field, finishing third, just eight lengths back.
At the Preakness two weeks later, he again overcame a stumbling start, got passed by Derby winner Street Sense in the final turn but still had enough to come back and win the race by a head bob.
"That race took the baby fat off him," said Curlin's assistant trainer, Scott Blasie.
Now head trainer Steve Asmussen says all he wants is for Curlin to break well from his No. 3 starting post tomorrow and make more friends for horse racing.
"He really grabs your attention," Asmussen said. "There's a lot of him. He's very striking. He's got a ton of personality. You know, he does have that about him. And I hope it continues to build with the more exposure he gets.
"But, for once, I'd just like him to be away from the gate cleanly. I just so much want to see him on his feet and run more of the race that he ran in the Arkansas Derby."
In Arkansas, Curlin broke second from the gate and finished with an almost effortless 10 1/2 -length victory.
The field in Arkansas, however, was suspect. That is not the case here. Hard Spun, the Kentucky Derby runner-up and third-place finisher in the Preakness, brings his own tenacity and speed. Prize filly Rags to Riches brings an unmatched breeding chart and fresh legs to battle. Tiago and Slew's Tizzy are graded stakes winners, and Imawildandcrazyguy is stakes-placed and was fourth at the Derby.
The only scenario that might undermine Curlin's chances is the same one that would be a problem for all but one other horse in the race, and that is if Hard Spun gets away on the lead and holds the advantage to the finish.
Jones, Hard Spun's trainer, said this race sets up well for his horse. Hard Spun and Slew's Tizzy, winner of the Grade II Lexington Stakes and the Grade III Lone Star Derby, will set the pace that will have a different impact on each competitor. But Jones also appears to be a Curlin fan.
"Curlin is ... a very, very special horse," Jones said. "I don't think there's been any questions from anybody about that. For a horse to reach the plateau of racing he has reached in such a quick amount of time, he's very special. And I do see that he could very well continue to improve.
"The mile and a half, maybe that won't be where he's going to improve the most. I mean, pedigree-wise, he's as well-equipped as anybody. ... But if he was to become muscle-fatigued, it would be very understandable."
Asmussen said his horse looks great, with no sign of the physical drain one might expect after two big, strenuous races in the past five weeks. And Bailey said he believes the way Curlin does his work will play an important part in how he handles the Belmont.
"Curlin is like the turtle in the children's story 'The Tortoise and The Hare,' " Bailey said with a laugh. "Not to say he's a turtle. It's just that he keeps on coming."