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JULY 13, 2009

by Vance Hanson

In the first installment of the 2008 Sprint Diary, published right around this time a year ago, we wrote the following:

Whether they like it or not, horsemen and fans alike will have to get used to the idea that in order for their charges or favorites to win divisional honors in the sprinting categories over the next two years, some semblance of ability on, if not outright fondness for, synthetic surfaces will be essential. This, of course, is entirely due to the fact the Breeders' Cup World Championships will be held at Santa Anita both this fall and next year. Also, participation in the Breeders' Cup has been a virtual requirement in order to nail down a sprint championship. Since the Breeders' Cup's inauguration in 1984, only Housebuster (1990) and Smoke Glacken (1997) have been able to bypass the big day and come out on top in year-end tallies.

It goes without saying that this dash of prophecy turned out to be woefully inaccurate. And while the crow was far from tasty, a virtual perfect storm of events came about to make it so.

When Midnight Lute turned in a masterful repeat victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) despite having raced only one other time during the season, it was sensible for Eclipse Award voters to go searching for a champion with a little more depth on the resume. Though he hardly qualified as "iron horse" material by historical standards, BENNY THE BULL (Lucky Lionel) passed every test in a four-race campaign that took him from Florida, to Dubai, to New York and back to Florida, and was entirely deserving considering the paucity of legitimate alternatives.

The same was true on the distaff side. INDIAN BLESSING (Indian Charlie) did win two of three synthetic attempts but lost the most important one, the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, by a significant margin to VENTURA (Chester House). In this case, however, it was Indian Blessing's achievements on dirt during most of her campaign that propelled her across the Eclipse finish line over a rival who, though best in the most significant race in the division, spent the better part of the year posing as a turf miler.

Perhaps it would be foolish to make another broad prediction for what kind of horse will be favored by the Eclipse electorate this season. However, at this writing, it is entirely possible that neither the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) nor the Filly & Mare Sprint, which has attained Grade 1 status for the first time this year, will have much bearing on the voting. What I mean by this will be further explained as we flesh out the status of each division.

The East: Fans were denied a clash between generations, and arguably the two best sprinters in the East, when FABULOUS STRIKE (Smart Strike) was withdrawn only hours before the July 5 Tom Fool H. (G2) at Belmont Park, leaving the three-year-old MUNNINGS (Speightstown) as the prohibitive favorite. The reasons for the scratch, according to trainer Todd Beattie, included the 11-pound concession Fabulous Strike was giving Munnings, four pounds higher than scale, and the fact the Tom Fool was seven furlongs, an eighth-mile further than Fabulous Strike's optimum distance.

Leaving aside the argument whether Fabulous Strike was giving away too much weight to Munnings, the most irritating part of this whole episode is that all of these supposed "negatives" were well known to the connections of Fabulous Strike long before entries were taken. The conditions and weight assignments for the Tom Fool were published far enough in advance for them to make a proper decision whether or not to run before the entry deadline. The fact they chose to enter anyway and then waited until race-day morning to withdraw was yet another slap in the face to racing fans who have seen this kind of thing far too often in recent decades.

The Tom Fool wound up being a tour de force for Munnings, who ran a virtually identical race as he had in the June 6 Woody Stephens S. (G2), a seven-furlong test exclusively for three-year-olds. Both times he waited patiently behind the leaders, saw daylight when the tiring leaders drifted off the rail at the top of the stretch, and drove through the gap to register emphatic victories. In the Tom Fool, the margin was 2 1/4 lengths against an overmatched group of older sprinters that were far from top level.

It is pure conjecture, but who is to say the Tom Fool would have developed the same way with Fabulous Strike in the field? The morning-line favorite was expected to skim the rail throughout from post one, and while the pace was certain to be lively, a horse of Fabulous Strike's class might not have so readily drifted off the inside path. Such a scenario would have at least forced Munnings to make a wide rally instead of taking the cozy trip up the fence he ultimately received.

Unfortunately, a clash between these two is not likely until fall at the earliest. Fabulous Strike is now pointing toward the August 9 Alfred G. Vanderbilt H. (G2) at Saratoga, while Munnings is expected to stretch out in the August 2 Haskell Invitational (G1) over nine furlongs or stay sprinting against his peers in the August 29 King's Bishop S. (G1). As both ran subpar races in separate Breeders' Cup events at Santa Anita last fall, races like the October 3 Vosburgh S. (G1) and/or October 24 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (G1), conveniently returned to the national calendar this year so that its Grade 1 status would not be stripped, could have added meaning should they clash in either or both. It's not inconceivable that male sprint championship honors might be decided before the November 7 Breeders' Cup -- and on dirt.

Both the Vosburgh and De Francis are at six furlongs, which suits Fabulous Strike just fine. After two early season losses in the General George H. (G2) and Carter H. (G1), both over seven-eighths, the six-year-old gelding ran his True North H. (G2) rivals off their feet on June 6, including defending champion Benny the Bull, who was making his first appearance in nearly 11 months.

Benny the Bull ran a fine race in defeat and was heavily backed to amend for that loss in Saturday's Smile Sprint H. (G2), but he again settled for runner-up honors as multiple Grade 2 winner EATON'S GIFT (Johannesburg) got the early jump and registered a 14-1 upset. Has Benny the Bull lost a step? It's entirely possible, but I'm willing to see another race or two before passing judgment.

Other sprinters of interest expected at some point during the Saratoga meet are the older KODIAK KOWBOY (Posse) and the three-year-olds CAPT. CANDYMAN CAN (Candy Ride [Arg]), EVERYDAY HEROES (Awesome Again) and CUSTOM FOR CARLOS (More Than Ready).

Kodiak Kowboy has developed into one of the nation's premier seven-furlong specialists, winning three of his last four races at the distance including the Carter and, most recently, the Donald LeVine Memorial H. at Philadelphia Park. Despite losing by less than a length when third in last year's Vosburgh, some of the more elite races in the division would seem to be beyond the reach of a horse who finds that seventh furlong virtually necessary for success. Until he proves otherwise, we think others have the edge on the track toward an Eclipse Award.

While Munnings is clearly the front runner among sophomore sprinters in the East, he has yet to clash with Capt. Candyman Can, who notched the Hutcheson S. (G2), Bay Shore S. (G3) and Matt Winn S. earlier in the season and whose only loss this year came in the one-mile Fountain of Youth S. (G2). The Ian Wilkes pupil dominated maiden rivals at Saratoga in his debut last August, and might very well give Munnings a run for his money in the King's Bishop. That race is likely being penciled in for Everyday Heroes, the Hirsch Jacobs S. (G3) victor who suffered his first career defeat when second to Munnings in the Woody Stephens, and Custom for Carlos, the Jersey Shore S. (G3) romper who appears to have developed significantly since finishing behind Munnings in a Kentucky Oaks Day allowance at Churchill Downs.

The West: So battered and in disarray are the older sprinters in California that ZENSATIONAL (Unbridled's Song) became the first three-year-old in a quarter-century to beat his elders in the Triple Bend H. (G1) at Hollywood Park on July 5. But let's give credit where it's due; the Bob Baffert-trained gray has the potential to be something truly special. Though dusted in his maiden debut on dirt at Saratoga last August, Zensational has been explosive in his three victories this season on synthetics. Even when racing on fast-playing tracks, his raw times of six furlongs in 1:08 3/5, 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14 2/5 and seven furlongs in 1:21 1/5 are impressive indeed.

Admittedly, Zensational still has some bad habits. Often a bit rank before settling into stride, he also showed a bit of immaturity when nearly cutting off a rival turning for home in the Triple Bend. Though it did not ultimately affect the outcome of the race, a few more inches of contact and a few more pounds of pressure might have been cause for a disqualification from his initial stakes score.

While there had been talk following the Triple Bend of sending Zensational to Saratoga for the King's Bishop, Baffert, perhaps recalling the colt's debut loss at the same course, seems more inclined of late to keep Zensational at Del Mar this summer and limit the amount of travel the colt will endure before the Breeders' Cup Sprint. A clash between him and Munnings would be exciting, of course, but it looks increasingly unlikely given Zensational's seeming preference for synthetics and the latter's seeming disdain for the same.

It is entirely safe to say Zensational has no equal in the three-year-old sprinting ranks in California, and the thin ranks of older sprinters was thoroughly exposed in the Triple Bend. The best among the vanquished was arguably NOBLE COURT (Doneraile Court), who broke slow and rallied well to finish third, a length behind the winner. Victorious in the Joe Hernandez S. and Ack Ack H. (G3) in two earlier starts this season, he is one of the more consistent members of his division out West.

Expected to see action at Del Mar are GEORGIE BOY (Tribal Rule), sidelined with a foot injury since taking the San Carlos H. (G2) and Sunshine Millions Sprint over the winter, and IN SUMMATION (Put It Back), who prepped for the August 8 Bing Crosby S. (G1) by narrowly prevailing in a three-way photo in Sunday's John McSorley S. over the Monmouth Park turf. In Summation captured the 2007 Bing Crosby.

Fillies and mares: With Ventura and Indian Blessing still on the scene, will the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint be a virtual re-run of last year's race? It's entirely possible, and it's doubtful we'll see Ventura contesting any other main track sprints prior to her title defense. She remains a monster going seven furlongs at Santa Anita -- she followed up her Breeders' Cup triumph with a one-length decision in the Santa Monica H. (G1) -- and thus the championship might again come down to who can put together enough quality wins over dirt in the East to offset any potential loss to the Juddmonte homebred in the Filly & Mare Sprint.

Indian Blessing handles the Santa Anita Pro-Ride okay, but clearly hated the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park in the June 14 Desert Stormer H. Making her first start since finishing second to the ill-fated Big City Man in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-G1), the dual champion suffered the indignity of her first unplaced finish when 5 1/2 lengths fourth to COCO BELLE (Storm Boot), who has gotten hot during the Hollywood meet after dropping two straight to SWEET AUGUST MOON (Malibu Moon) across town at Santa Anita.

Scratched from Saturday's Princess Rooney H. (G1) when it was feared she would not pass a post-race test after being treated for a recent leg infection, Indian Blessing's next port of call will likely be the August 29 Ballerina S. (G1) at Saratoga, which could develop into the premier race of the division this season. Also expected for the Ballerina is INFORMED DECISION (Monarchos), who has strung together five consecutive stakes wins, including a head victory over Ventura in the Madison S. (G1) at Keeneland in April. The filly acts on dirt, too, with scores in the Humana Distaff (G1) and Missile Belle S. at Belmont among the quintet of recent victories.

GAME FACE (Menifee) and ANY LIMIT (Limit Out) are tied at 2-2 after four meetings this year, but the former did her rival one better by rebounding from a pair of recent bad beats with an authoritative romp in the Princess Rooney in the absence of Indian Blessing. Another filly to watch is PORTE BONHEUR (Hennessy), who avenged a loss in the Vagrancy H. (G2) in her seasonal bow to take the First Flight H. (G2) by a nose on June 28. All are Ballerina possibles.

The three-year-old filly sprinters, at least the ones that have distinguished themselves to this point, would seem hard pressed to make a dent against their elders. The notables among this class are the undefeated CAT MOVES (Tale of the Cat), who prevailed over her now-sidelined stablemate Light Green (Pleasantly Perfect) in the Prioress S. (G1); WAR KILL (War Chant), unraced since taking the Beaumont S. (G2) on April 8; Azalea S. (G3) heroine FIRST PASSAGE (Giant's Causeway); and the California pair of CARLSBAD (Rocky Bar), vixen of the Hollywood Oaks (G2) and Santa Paula S. (G3), and EVITA ARGENTINA (Candy Ride [Arg]), who beat colts in the San Vicente S. (G2) three races back.

Turf sprinters: The most important American-based grass sprinter remains winless in five starts this season, but there is no denying how excruciatingly close CANNONBALL (Catienus) came to giving American racing a much needed boost on one of the sport's biggest stages. Invited to participate at the five-day Royal Ascot meet following narrow losses in the Shakertown S. (G3) and Aegon Turf Sprint (G3), Cannonball was the only older runner trainer Wesley Ward sent over for what turned out to be a history-making trip. Ward trained a pair of two-year-old winners, the first at the Royal meet by any American-based runners, and narrowly missed a third with the stable's best grass sprint specialist.

A fast-closing sixth of 15 in the June 16 King's Stand S. (Eng-G1), a five-furlong dash that was much too short for him, Cannonball returned four days later to contest the six-furlong Golden Jubilee S. (Eng-G1) over six furlongs. The additional eighth-mile almost certainly helped as the four-year-old gelding made an impressive late charge to just miss by a neck when taking runner-up honors behind Art Connoisseur (Lucky Story).

This observer believes a more astute ride from Olivier Peslier could have made Cannonball a winner in the Golden Jubilee. With more than half the race completed, Cannonball trailed all but one in the Golden Jubilee, that being Art Connoisseur. Perhaps knowing how favorable the stands' side rail had played for much of the week, jockey Tom Queally shifted Art Connoisseur to the fence when an opening appeared and got first run up the near side. Cannonball, having had the opportunity to take the same spot but missing the chance, was then forced to bull his way in between rivals and simply did so much too late to reach the three-year-old Ascot specialist.

John Velazquez, who rode Cannonball in the King's Stand but who had returned to the United States prior to the Golden Jubilee, won aboard both of Ward's winning two-year-olds and probably would have given the Sarah and Ken Ramsey colorbearer a better chance. It is believed that this will not be Cannonball's only trans-Atlantic trip, though his next one is more likely to occur at next year's Royal Ascot meet rather than in such races as the Haydock Sprint Cup (Eng-G1) in September. The Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint would almost certainly figure in the New York-bred's plans this fall.

SMART ENOUGH (Horse Chestnut [SAf]), among active grass dragsters in North America, might be the one going best at the moment. After a solid third in the Aegon Turf Sprint in his seasonal bow, the six-year-old has since registered easy triumphs in the Wolf Hill S. at Monmouth and, for the second time in his career, the Highlander S. (Can-G3) at Woodbine by two lengths in a sizzling 1:08 1/5 for six furlongs.

DESERT CODE (E Dubai), whom we tabbed to upset the inaugural Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last fall, kicked off his campaign with a 2 1/2-length triumph in the Daytona H. (G3), but faltered badly to trail both the Arcadia H. (G2) and San Simeon H. (G3) in his last two. Trainer David Hofmans will keep the five-year-old out of action until the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, where he will prep for a Breeders' Cup title defense in the Morvich H. (G3), the same race he used last season. Also unlikely to be seen until the Morvich is MR. GRUFF (Mr. Greeley), who started out the year a maiden but improved his turf sprint mark to 4-3-1-0 with a victory in the San Simeon by three parts of a length.

As was the case with Desert Code last year, positive experience over Santa Anita's unique and tricky downhill turf course might ultimately prove to be the key factor in scooping out the Turf Sprint winner.


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