03/21/2006 12:00AM

Gaff could be best of U.S. quintet

Email
Bill Denver / EQUI-PHOTOS
Gaff earned a 111 Beyer Speed Figure in winning the Mr. Prospector.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - One glance at Gaff, and it is easy to see how he has developed into a top-class sprinter.

With a stocky and powerful frame, Gaff has very few wasted ounces among his 1,250 pounds. "He's a big horse," said Scott Blasi, assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen.

Whether Gaff can become a "big horse" in the world's sprint division will be better known this weekend, when he starts in the $2 million Golden Shaheen for sprinters at Nad Al Sheba racecourse.

Gaff, a 4-year-old horse who has won stakes in Ireland and Florida, is one of five U.S. sprinters among the 15 entrants in the Golden Shaheen, the richest sprint in the world. In a competitive group of American shippers, Gaff has the highest Beyer Speed Figure in the last year, a 111 from his win in the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 7.

Gaff has taken a circuitous route to reach the first Group 1 or Grade 1 race of his career. Owned by Heiligbrodt Racing Stable and Michael Smurfit, Gaff has run at four racetracks in the U.S. and three in Ireland. Along the way, he has won 4 of 11 starts and $193,147. His earnings would balloon by $1.2 million if he wins the Golden Shaheen.

Gaff's first start did not feature such promise. In his only start at 2 in the U.S., Gaff finished seventh in a maiden race at 4 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland in April 2004, fading through the stretch.

"I think he's always been a dirt sprinter," Blasi said. "He was one of our best 2-year-olds the same year that Lunarpal swept the 2-year-old stakes at Churchill Downs. He hurt himself a little at Keeneland."

A few months later, Gaff was sent to Ireland, where he made six starts in 2004 and 2005 for trainer Dermot Weld.

Gaff ran in two sprints in the fall of 2004, winning the El Gran Senor Stakes at Fairyhouse and finishing second to Footstepsinthesand in the Group 3 Killavullan Stakes at Leopardstown in October. Footstepsinthesand later won the Group 1 English 2000 Guineas in 2005.

As a 3-year-old in 2005, Gaff was winless in four starts in Ireland, with his best finish a third in the Group 3 Leopardstown 2000 Guineas Trial in his first start of the year. He was sent back to Asmussen during the summer and finished third in his comeback race, an allowance race at Belmont Park last September.

"They sent him to Ireland with the intention of sending him back to us at the end of his 3-year-old year," Blasi said. "I think he changed a little bit when we got him back. I think he just blossomed from his race when he was third in the Belmont."

Gaff has not lost since. His three-race winning streak includes allowance races at Belmont Park in October and Churchill Downs in November and the Mr. Prospector Handicap, which is his only start this year.

In the Mr. Prospector, Gaff stalked the pace, took the lead in the final furlong, and was fully extended to beat War Front by a neck.

"He showed a lot of determination that day to win," Blasi said. "He showed he was a legitimate sprinter. Going from an allowance to a stakes at Gulfstream Park is a big step."

Tuesday, Gaff had his final workout before the Golden Shaheen, going about a half-mile in an estimated 46 seconds under retired Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr.

Tuesday's workout was designed to acclimate Gaff to the Golden Shaheen course, a straightaway six furlongs. Timing the workout was tricky after visibility was reduced to approximately 200 yards. Two racing officials recorded the workout. One stood in the chute and announced via cell phone that the workout was under way. A second, standing at the finish line, announced when the work was finished.

Blasi said he did not expect the workout to take too much of a toll on Gaff.

"We want to keep him in his routine," Blasi said. "He'll be fresh. He'll be tearing down the barn tomorrow."