By Michael Adolphson
Coming into this year's compelling renewal of the $10-million G1 Dubai World Cup, it is difficult to look past the overpowering presence of heavy favorite Arrogate (Unbridled's Song). The Bob Baffert trainee has done so much in so little time that the sheer trajectory of his potential is as stifling as his ascendancy. Yet, if one were to look beyond the Juddmonte juggernaut, the second-most accomplished horse in the field is arguably one of the most overlooked in Keen Ice (Curlin). Such is good and fine, though, with Donegal Racing's principal Jerry Crawford, as he has been down this road before with his top pupil.
“He's a horse who has meant a lot to our team,” Crawford said. “We have been blessed with success and he has been a huge part of that. I'm confident going into the World Cup. Like [trainer] Todd [Pletcher] will tell you, he's trained the best he's every trained at this point in his career and that's very encouraging. In fact, they had to work him a day sooner because he was so sharp. His last breeze, in company with (fellow World Cup entrant) Neolithic (Harlan's Holiday), was as good as he has ever worked.
“A victory would make him perhaps the greatest upsetter in the history of American racing,” Crawford continued. “In his lifetime, he has defeated American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) and then would have beaten Arrogate, who may be the best horse of my lifetime. He also posted the fastest number of his life in the [$12-million GI] Pegasus [World Cup Invitational Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park] and the distance this time will suit him more than the mile and an eighth.”
Much like his name, Keen Ice carries his striking physical self with a healthy amount of eager energy before the race, only to cool off and become all business once he hits the track. In the money in nine of his 20 career starts, the son of Curlin has competed in Grade I events in 11 of his last 13 races, never side-stepping top competition in a modern golden era of Thoroughbred superstars. His resume includes a rousing victory in the 2015 GI Travers S. at the World Cup's 10-furlong trip and finishing in the top four in the aforementioned Pegasus, GI Belmont S., GI Clark H., GI Haskell Invitational and twice in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic. He enters the 2017 World Cup with a new trainer in Pletcher, stronger race pattern and powerful new part-owner in Calumet Farm, who plans to stand the sturdy late-running bay at the conclusion of his career. In 2016, he failed to factor in a rare non-performance, ultimately finishing eighth, beaten 6 3/4 lengths by California Chrome.
“I don't think the horse was even close to being at this level last year,” Crawford explained. “When he came [to Dubai], he just took a precipitous drop. He had run so well in the Travers and then seemed to tail off. He then came out of the World Cup with a fracture. We had Dr. Larry Bramlage go over him and then, when he recovered, we sent him to Todd.
“One of the hardest things in racing is to have a horse who runs at that level get injured with something like a fracture and come back to that level, but he's unbelievably come back even better,” Crawford continued. “He's going to come running and everyone knows that. How much running he has to do to get there is what we don't know. [Jockey] Javier [Castellano] is a master at gauging pace and Todd has him perfect, we just have two major concerns. First, the track has tended to be a bit of merry-go-round this year and that doesn't suit his style. We hope that isn't the case Mar. 25. The second obviously being a horse named Arrogate.”
No matter what happens Saturday, a few things are all but certain. First, classy Keen Ice will make his stalwart, systematic surge to add to an impressive $2.6 million in career earnings. Second, and perhaps even more important, Crawford will be the ring leader of an adrenalized attending partnership that has been responsible for bringing multiple new, enthusiastic owners into the game at its highest level.
“We will have 30 people attending this weekend and are sure to have a great time,” he concluded. “In fact, I already have over 100 partners signed on for the [Kentucky] Derby. We have had a horse in the Derby three of last seven years and have the highest win percentage and earnings per start of any major partnership and that's pretty extraordinary and something we're very proud of. To win the World Cup would take it to a whole new level.”