He is a two – time Horse of the Year, winner of 11 races and over $10,500,000.00. His travels took him from Florida to Kentucky to New York to Dubai. At the time of his retirement, he was the richest North American racehorse in history. He commands a $175,000.00 stud fee, and his book fills completely every year.
He knows who he is. He carries himself proudly, with full understanding of his importance, and he expects to be treated like royalty. He will assert himself if he feels he is being slighted. He must be brought up from the paddocks first, and if he is not among the first turned out, he will holler until someone comes for him. Unlike some of his stablemates who enjoy covering themselves in mud, he almost always remains clean and sleek while in his paddock. If he dislikes something, he lets people know. If he likes something, it is equally obvious.
One of Curlin’s greatest likes? His groom, Christina Zurick.
Curlin, a big chestnut son of Smart Strike and Sherriff's Deputy (Deputy Minister), was touted as a potential all-time great even before he stepped into the starting gate at Churchill Downs in an attempt to be the first horse since Apollo in 1882, 125 years previously, to win the Kentucky Derby having not started as a two-year-old. History would catch up with Curlin that day, but he finished a good third against Street Sense and Hard Spun, and then turned the tables on Street Sense in the Preakness before finishing second by a nose in the Belmont as Rags to Riches became the first filly to win the third leg of the Triple Crown in 102 years. Later that year, he won the Breeder’s Cup Classic, clinching a Horse of the Year title, and as a four-year-old took the Dubai World Cup and three other graded stakes before becoming American Horse of the Year for the second season in a row. He retired with 11 wins, 2 seconds, and 2 thirds in 16 starts, and earnings that, at the time, were record breaking. An incredibly popular horse from the start of his career, Curlin’s cheering section only grew as his racing career progressed. One of his earliest fans, from the day he broke his maiden, was a then twelve-year-old girl in Minnesota, who made a Curlin themed pillow in her sixth grade Home Economics class.
“Curlin was the one who made me want to pursue a career in racing,” Christina says. “I followed his entire career, from the moment he broke his maiden at Gulfstream, and I continued to follow his career once he retired to the breeding shed.” She remembers back in 2008, when Curlin was running in the Jaguar Trophy at Nad al Sheba, his prep race for the Dubai World Cup. It was run on a Wednesday, and she stayed home from school that day, having convinced her father that she was sick, so she could watch the race. Her father arrived home as the race concluded and called her out for not actually being sick. Christina got grounded. She did not care. “Curlin just ignited my passion for the sport. It was because of him that I read every book I could get my hands on, and through him and his career I learned so much. I wound up earning a standing gig on WCCO Radio with Dark Star because I called in and bragged about how Curlin was going to win the Derby. This was just after he had won the Rebel. I ended up doing that radio show until 2009 before Dark Star switched stations. I owe so much to Curlin; if he hadn’t come along, I know I would not be doing anything close to the industry.”
Christina got her first job in the racing industry when she was 16, getting her initial hands-on industry experience for Gary Scherer at Canterbury Park, though she credits her basic horsemanship skills to Windy Ridge Ranch, a schooling barn in Woodbury, Minnesota, where she did barn chores. She worked for Scherer for six summers and took other horse related jobs in the winters. Not all of these jobs were good experiences. At one of her winter jobs, a small breeding operation, she and the only other female employee were consistently berated and called useless by management, in addition to being blamed for things they were not even present for, including the irresponsible actions of male coworkers. In December 2016, finding herself at rock bottom after being fired from that job, Christina nearly quit working in the horse industry, feeling like the misogyny she had experienced was a sign that she would never get the same chances as her male counterparts. However, she was inspired by a friend as well as one of her former bosses to not only keep at it, but to chase bigger dreams. Hitching a ride with her friend, she moved to Kentucky, with just $500 in her pocket, and no car. She stayed with her friend and took a job at Margaux Farm. It was there she began working with two and three-year-old colts, one being a son of Curlin who would only behave for people he liked and respected. It turned out that he liked and respected Christina. “It was through working with him that I came to love working with intact horses,” Christina says. “I realized I needed to be with stallions during my time at Margaux Farm.”
She applied at several stallion operations, and what was likely a combination of her gender and lack of experience in the breeding shed resulted in no job offers. Christina decided to take a job working with broodmares, hoping she could get her foot in the door and network her way into a job with stallions. After two years of employment at Stonestreet, during which time she was featured in an I Am Horse Racing video, Christina got a job working with stallions at Hill ‘N Dale in May of 2019. She credits her long-time love of Curlin and knowledge of his career with getting both her Stonestreet and Hill ‘N Dale positions.
Being a woman working with stallions still is not the norm, although Christina is not the only female stallion groom in the Bluegrass State. The attitude surrounding women in those jobs still varies, but fortunately, the environment at Hill ‘N Dale’s stallion barn is very welcoming to competent workers regardless of their gender. “When I first started, I was worried that I would be discriminated against because of my gender, as I had been in the past, but much to my surprise, being a woman in the stallion barn has not come with the sexism I thought it would. I have been incredibly fortunate to work for Larry (Walton), who doesn’t make it a thing, and the guys I work with, Lance and Ricky, treat me as an equal, which is so different from some of the other places I’ve worked. I’m so fortunate to work for a farm like Hill ‘N Dale where you are judged not by your gender but by your work ethic. Our farm management is really strong and they’re all great people who really care about their employees.”
Of course, Christina was elated to have gotten the job at Hill ‘N Dale not only because she finally had the opportunity to work with stallions, but because her favorite horse of all time stood stud in their stallion barn. It was not long before her dream came true and she was assigned to Curlin – at least temporarily. “His regular groom wound up being out for a time because of a broken foot, and so Larry gave me the opportunity to take care of his horses which also included Good Magic and Bayern. It was during this 5 ½ month period that Curlin and I figured each other out. He is extremely communicative of his needs; he will let you know exactly what he wants and when he wants it. I steadily won him over with peppermints and back scratches. He eventually got to the point where every morning he would nicker good morning to me. When Curlin’s regular groom came back, I ended up having Bayern and World of Trouble as my permanent horses, but 10 months later, when Curlin’s regular groom went back to Mexico, I was given Curlin for good.” She describes the day she was permanently assigned to the big chestnut as the happiest day of her life. “That morning I went to check him over and he still hollered for me like we hadn’t missed any time.”
To this day, all it takes to get a hearty nicker out of Curlin is for Christina to walk into the barn and call “hey, Bubba!” She knows him well enough that she can predict if he will like or dislike something before he makes that determination himself. He lets her rub his tongue and love on him, although she admits he will mess with her sometimes, to see what he can get away with. While he does not get away with much, his requests for attention are almost always obliged. After nearly two years working in the Hill ‘N Dale stallion barn (first at the former Lexington location, and now at Xalapa in Paris), she loves every horse on the roster for different reasons, but Curlin remains her favorite, with fellow Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Bayern in second. “They’re my babies,” she says fondly. “I definitely have the closest relationship with those two.” She buys a specific type of mint to bring to the barn, as they are the only kind Bayern likes. “Curlin isn’t picky,” she says. “He’s happy with these mints, and he’d be happy with any other kind too. He loves his treats.”
Perhaps because she started out as “just a fan” of the red horse, Christina does what she can to share Curlin as well as the other Hill ‘N Dale stallions with others on social media. She regularly shares photos and videos on her Twitter account (@ChristinaZurick). “I think it’s important, and good for the sport, to give fans access to their favorites. Most people I’ve met through social media have been very nice, and I’m always happy to share photos and stories about the stallions with them.” She also is encouraging to fellow women who want to get started in the thoroughbred industry, especially those that also dream to work with stallions. “There will be people who tell you that you can’t do things, but if you know you can do it, prove them wrong. (Women) often must be two times better than everyone else to get the same opportunities, so work your butt off and success will follow. The other piece of advice I have is to get as much experience with hard to handle horses that you can, because that helps tremendously when making the transition to stallions. And no matter how much you know, always be open to learning more.”
Christina, still only in her mid-twenties, has come a long way from the girl in Minnesota who stitched Curlin’s face and name onto a pillow for a school project, and who called into radio shows to tout him as racing’s next big horse. She knows her successes are the result of persistence and hard work, but she’s also grateful for the opportunities she has had. “I thank my lucky stars every day I come into work and hear his nicker,” she says. “Not many people can say that their favorite racehorse of all time loves them too.”
About the Author: Nicole is a born and raised Michigander who enjoys road tripping around the country to visit and photograph current and retired racehorses. Her favorite Thoroughbred is Da Hoss.