10/06/2011 1:13PM

Amazombie an old-school horse in an old-school race


For some reason, the folks running the show at the Breeders’ Cup lost faith in their Sprint, and that’s too bad. Run at a whiplash six furlongs over some of the most venerable dirt in the land, the Sprint was the consummate American horse race – come one come all. Nearly every great champion has dealt with the distance at one time or another, and nearly every famous American racecourse can boast its own rich six-furlong lore.

Then in 2007 a Filly and Mare Sprint was added to the Breeders’ Cup menu, thus eliminating any chance that fans would see another Very Subtle, Safely Kept, Meafara, Soviet Problem, Desert Stormer, Honest Lady, or Xtra Heat give the boys all they could handle.

In 2008, the Turf Sprint sprung from someone’s imagination in hopes of luring European speed horses back to the fold, seeing as Sheikh Albadou’s Sprint shocker of 20 years ago had become such a distant memory. If it has helped the cause – hands across the water and all that jazz – no one’s noticed. In three runnings, a European turf sprinter has hit the board once.

Meanwhile, the diluted, old-school Sprint has soldiered on, seemingly impervious to insult. Times being what they are, the Sprint purse was even cut this year from $2 million to $1.5 million. But hey, it’s lucky to have a job.

California horsemen and horseplayers love the Sprint. Year after year, they have gone after the race with gusto, winning with the likes of Precisionist, Cardmania, Reraise, Kona Gold, and Thor’s Echo, and cashing at tunes of 25-1 (Dancing in Silks), 16-1 (Elmhurst), and 18-1 (Thirty Slews).

If there is going to be a West Coast presence in the BC Sprint on Saturday, Nov. 5, at Churchill Downs (post time 2:37 p.m. Eastern), the picture should become a bit clearer after the $250,000 Ancient Title is run this Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

All eyes will be on The Factor in the Ancient Title, and rightfully so. The 3-year-old, named for Bill O’Reilly’s Fox show of light-hearted cultural commentary, came back from a holiday with guns blazing at Del Mar to defeat older runners in the seven-furlong Pat O’Brien. It was a huge race from all angles, with Breeders’ Cup written all over it. (In a perfect world, the 2-year-old Colbert, named for the anti-O’Reilly Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, would have evolved into a Breeders’ Cup colt. But alas, he has yet to get past his maiden.)

The Factor is not confronted by the deepest running of the Ancient Title, what with the West’s most accomplished sprinter, Smiling Tiger, passing the race to train up to the Cup and Euroears having his unlucky run in last weekend’s Vosburgh. Mensa Heat has come along from his claiming roots to merit attention, while Irrefutable, who shares digs with The Factor in the Bob Baffert barn, can boast a compelling line at Calder to Vosburgh winner Giant Ryan.

It is hard, though, to turn away from Amazombie, winner of the Potrero Grande and Sunshine Millions Sprint over the Santa Anita dirt earlier this year. Also, it’s fun to say his name.

Trained by Bill Spawr, Amazombie’s 21 races and 17 in-the-money finishes – eight of them wins – qualify him as a local institution of great value. He was gelded late in life, a novel concept, and reacted accordingly, running his best races since the operation and hitting his peak this spring when he put together three straight first-place finishes.

Sadly, the last of those was taken away from Spawr’s runner when he was disqualified from victory in the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park. Campfires glowed long into the night with raw words tossed by eyewitnesses, most of them certain the stewards were viewing racing footage from an old Mickey Rooney movie instead of the evidence at hand. The fact that the race was run on Memorial Day does not make it any easier to forget, though for Spawr the task now is getting his horse back in the groove after two subsequent defeats, most recently a third to Euroears and Smiling Tiger in the Bing Crosby at Del Mar on July 31.

“I’d run him every month for quite a while,” said Spawr, who’s also in on the ownership. “I was trying to give him a break but couldn’t afford it.”

Spawr had his tongue in his cheek for that last crack. Now, Amazombie has had his break.

“He runs very hard every time,” Spawr went on. “Sprinters run the whole race, not like a router who might only run the last three-eighths. They lay it out there from the start. We did lose a little time, about 10 days, at Del Mar with a bruised foot. But I’m not using that as an excuse for anything. Right now, he’s doing great. I just wish there was a little more speed in there to go with The Factor.”

Amazombie was made eligible to the Breeders’ Cup with a one-time $25,000 payment last June. Spawr gives credit for the heads-up to John Lindo, one of his owners, right at the deadline.

“I went out to the street corner with a tin cup and a sign to collect the money and got it done,” Spawr said.

Spawr has run four horses in the Sprint, most recently the Ancient Title winner Bordonaro in 2006 (fourth at Churchill Downs) and again in 2007 (sixth in the Monmouth slop). He’d love to go back to Kentucky with Amazombie.

“He’s got to win this one to go,” Spawr said. “Now that he’s eligible, it’s a Win and You’re In deal, so if he wins, we’re there. If he gets beat, we’ll think about it. But let’s go ahead and jump this hurdle first.”