After watching most of the nation's top sprinters perform this summer, it is beginning to look as if this year's Breeders' Cup Sprint may have very few serious contenders. But that does not mean it will be all that easy to pick a winner. That's because the select handful of true Grade 1 sprinters currently pointing for the richest sprint in America have one important attribute in common.
They sure can run fast.
The Todd Pletcher-trained Speightstown certainly demonstrated amazing speed in his two most recent outings, when he withstood hot-pressure speed duels and opened up on his rivals for convincing victories in the True North Handicap at Belmont in June and A.G. Vanderbilt Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 14.
While there never is a guarantee that any horse will reproduce a stellar summer performances on Breeders' Cup Day, it is hard to imagine any other BC Sprinter going to the post with stronger form and more betting money riding on him than Speightstown, who is unbeaten in four starts this year. Yet there are at least seven legit threats who seem fully capable of winning the BC Sprint should they improve a length or two and/or Speightstown regresses a notch.
They are: Midas Eyes, Strong Hope, Our New Recruit, Pico Central, Pomeroy, Clock Stopper, Kela and the defending 2003 BC Sprint winner, Cajun Beat.
The Bobby Frankel-trained Midas Eyes always has been a sharp speed factor at any distance, but after winning a fast 6 1/2-furlong allowance race at Saratoga on Aug. 25, followed by a solid stalk-'n'-go score in the seven-furlong Forego 10 days later, Midas Eyes is a confirmed Grade 1 sprinter with every right to be a serious upset threat at the six-furlong BC distance. While trainer Bobby Frankel might elect to train the 4-year-old son of Touch Gold right up to BC Day, he could elect to use the six-furlong Vosburgh at Belmont on Oct. 2 as a springboard to the main event.
Strong Hope, a Pletcher-trained stablemate of Speightstown's, had previously demonstrated that he could run with the best sprinters and milers in the country. But his stride fell apart late in the Forego on Sept. 4 after he wrested the lead from front-running Yessirgeneralsir in the upper stretch. While the Forego was Strong Hope's first race since his third-place finish in the Met Mile on Memorial Day, Pletcher may need the Vosburgh at Belmont Oct. 2 to find out why Strong Hope did not run to his exceptional Forego training drills. Should Strong Hope miss the Vosburgh, or go in it and fail to run a much stronger race, it would difficult to expect him to fire his best shot against his talented stablemate.
The John Sadler-trained Our New Recruit certainly will bear watching in the BC Sprint even if he trains up to the race instead off running in the Ancient Title at Santa Anita on Oct. 10, the traditional prep for Southern California based BC Sprinters.
After six months on the sidelines recovering from his winning performance in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen, Our New Recruit easily defeated Bluesthestandard in the $75,000 Pirate's Bounty Stakes at Del Mar on Sept. 6. The significance of this performance is twofold: Bluesthestandard finished second to Cajun Beat in the 2003 BC Sprint, thus giving horseplayers a good measuring stick to evaluate Our New Recruit without looking at the teletimer. Using the teletimer, Our New Recruit's performance looks even better, as he won the Pirate's Bounty from slightly off the pace with a final quarter clocked in a very good 24.11 seconds en route to 1:08.25 final time, the fastest six furlongs of the Del Mar meet.
With that kind of effort by Our New Recruit after a six-month layoff, Sadler is willing to bet that no further prep races are needed to put Our New Recruit in peak condition for BC Day.
The Paulo Lobo-trained Pico Central, who finished a weakening third to stretch-running Kela in the Pat O'Brien Stakes at Del Mar on Aug. 15, certainly would be a BC sprint threat if he regains his early-season form.
Hampered by minor injuries throughout his career, Pico Central won three graded stakes during the winter and spring, including the Grade 1 Carter against Strong Hope in April and the Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile against Bowman's Band and Strong Hope in May. But after contesting a fast pace in the Pat O'Brien, Pico Central easily was overtaken by the stretch-running Kela. who also won the six-furlong Bing Crosby earlier in the Del Mar meet. At his best, Pico Central is a formidable sprinter, but he may need to show his true colors in the Ancient Title before he can be expected to challenge Speightstown.
The Patrick Biancone-trained Pomeroy is only a 3-year-old, but his gritty winning performance in the seven-furlong King's Bishop on the Travers Day card suggests he may be among the more dangerous upset threats in the BC Sprint.
Not only was the 1:20.99 clocking for the Grade 1 King's Bishop among the fastest at Saratoga this year, but also Pomeroy was in close contact to a fast half-mile split clocked in 44.61 before he powered to the front with a late-quarter clocked in a sharp 23.90 capped by a final furlong in 12.48. All those quick splits - and the final Beyer Speed Figure of 107 - suggest that the well-handled Pomeroy might have another forward move in him on the day it counts the most.
The Mike Mitchell-trained Kela is a uniquely qualified contender for this year's BC Sprint because he not only turned back in distance effectively to win the two major sprint stakes on the 2004 Del Mar schedule, but also because he has won the Texas Mile at Lone Star Park, this year's host of the Breeders' Cup. Even so, as a deep closer, Kela will need the fastest horses in the race to press each other early into submission.
The Dallas Stewart-trained Clock Stopper might not really be a win contender in the BC Sprint, given his deep-closing running style and his habit of settling for second money in all recent sprint starts. But Clock Stopper, along with Bluesthestandard, the Texas-based Yessirgeneralsir, and the stretch-running Gygistar may be among the most logical horses to consider for exotic wager finishing positions - depending on the severity of the pace and how many of the contenders listed above do not recover or produce their best form on cue.
Likewise, the Bob Frankel-trained Cajun Beat certainly has not done anything this year to inspire confidence in a repeat triumph. Judgment must be reserved on the defending champion until we see exactly how fast he runs as this year winds down.