01/27/2004 1:00AM

Aldebaran didn't need BC to take title


Aldebaran lost the battle, finishing a disappointing sixth behind Cajun Beat in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but won the war when he was named champion sprinter at Monday night's Eclipse Awards ceremony. is the first sprint champion since Smoke Glacken in 1997 to earn the honor without winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

A homebred son of Mr. Prospector and Chimes of Freedom, Aldebaran is owned by the Niarchos family's Flaxman Holdings Ltd. and trained by Bobby Frankel. He is the second Frankel-trained sprint champion in three years, joining Squirtle Squirt, who won the Eclipse in 2001. Jerry Bailey rode Aldebaran in all but his first start of the year.

Aldebaran began his award-winning campaign on March 2 with an easy victory in the Grade 1 San Carlos Handicap over seven furlongs at Santa Anita. After finishing a distant second to Congaree in the Grade 1 Carter in New York, he journeyed to Kentucky to win the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap on Derby Day. Twenty-three days later, that victory was followed by a hard-fought neck decision over Saarland on a sloppy track in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap, another Grade 1 race.

Next, at Churchill Downs, Aldebaran found the distance and competition a bit too much and finished a distant third behind Perfect Drift and Mineshaft, the eventual Horse of the Year, when he tried to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 14. But he bounced right back when he was returned to his favorite distance, posting one-sided wins in the Grade 2 Tom Fool and Grade 1 Forego handicaps, both at seven furlongs.

The Forego was easily Aldebaran's best performance of the season and arguably the finest of his outstanding career. Trailing early as usual, he unleashed an eye-catching run around the turn that carried him from last to first in the span of less than a half-mile. He then powered away from Najran and Gygistar in the stretch to win by 4 3/4 widening lengths. The final time of 1:21.26 earned Aldebaran a 122 Beyer Speed Figure.

Turning back to six furlongs for the first time in the Breeders' Cup, Aldebaran raced at the rear of the pack to the stretch before rallying mildly to finish sixth, 5 1/2 lengths behind Cajun Beat.

"I was a little nervous someone else might get the award because he did not win the Breeders' Cup," said Frankel. "But he really deserved it. He started early, ran all year long, and just overpowered everybody. I didn't even want to run him in the Breeders' Cup, because I really didn't think he had a chance to win it going six furlongs."

Aldebaran banked $1.1 million in 2003 and closed out his career with earnings of more than $1.7 million. He will stand stud at Darby Dan Farm in 2004.