08/21/2008 11:00PM

Call him 'Mr.' as a turf sprinter


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Mr. Nightlinger has hit the turf running so fast, even trainers based at tracks where he has never raced have taken notice.

"That horse is a monster," said Prairie Meadows-based Chris Richard, who sends Native Ruler into battle with Mr. Nightlinger on Saturday in the Arlington Sprint Handicap.

Mr. Nightlinger switched to turf racing this past spring, and has dominated all four of his grass sprints. He beat the accomplished stakes horse Smart Enough in the Grade 3 Shakertown at Keeneland in April, his turf-sprint debut, then won the Grade 3 Aegon Turf Sprint at Churchill three weeks later. A Churchill Downs allowance fell by more than two lengths in June, and on July 26 Mr. Nightlinger blazed through five furlongs in 56 seconds winning the Taylor's Special here by more than three lengths. His 107 Beyer Speed Figure from that race is one of the highest turf numbers of the year, and all four of Mr. Nightlinger's grass sprints have earned triple-digit Beyers.

"We always thought this horse had talent, but ever since we've gotten him on turf, he's been a different horse," said trainer Bret Calhoun.

This is a good year to be a talented turf sprinter, with the inaugural running of the $1 million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint on at Santa Anita in October. That is the major goal for Mr. Nightlinger, and whoever wins the $200,000 Arlington Sprint, a Breeders' Cup Challenge Win and You're In race, gets an automatic berth in the BC Turf Sprint.

Mr. Nightlinger races on the front end, but whips through really fast half-miles on cruise control, and comes home with a good kick. On the lead in all his grass wins, Mr. Nightlinger might have early company Saturday from Canadian invader Starticus, also very fast into stride, and drawn in post 1. Starticus cuts back in distance from 6 1/2 to 5 1/2 furlongs, which looks like a positive move.

Late-running Fort Prado, an eight-time Arlington turf winner, would appreciate a fast early pace, and will offer higher odds than usual. Prince Woodman, beaten a nose in a minor Belmont turf sprint stakes last out, is in from New York. And Arlington-based Base Commander, like the Richard-trained Native Ruler, would have a chance if his form transfers to turf. Never worse than third in six starts, Base Commander is a three-time winner on all-weather tracks, but makes his turf debut.

"We think the horse is doing well," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "We wish there was a significant [Polytrack] race at Arlington for him, but the option's not there, so we'll give this a try."