10/18/2009 11:00PM

Gayego the choice in Sprint

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Gitano Hernando - say who? - should not do it, but the 18-1 synthetic-track specialist out of Wolverhampton, of all places, has rendered it rather clear that no American-based horse should prevail in this year's Breeders' Cup Classic. The unranked stranger outran one of America's best handicap horses, Colonel John, in a fair fight through the stretch in the at Santa Anita. The final three-eighths of 34.80 seconds and Beyer Speed Figure of 106 were solid, but unexceptional, even for a serious prelim. And he may not even run in the Classic. Throw out the American handicap horses.

That happened late on Oct. 10 at Santa Anita, and until the last in the line of Grade 1 events from coast to coast late on Oct. 11, not any of the important stepping-stones had done much to clarify the probable outcomes of the two-day show now three weeks away. Then Godolphin's Gayego appeared in the , and by the end of the six furlongs, handicappers could imagine they had witnessed one of the winners to come. Under restraint and far, far back early, Gayego languished in place as the fast fractions ticked off: 21.68 seconds, 44.50, 56.34, to 1:08.28.

Sent a long ways wide between horses into the upper stretch, Gayego exploded under Garrett Gomez. He inhaled the field and the final quarter-mile in 22.80. He never felt the whip. He won in hand. He possessed power in reserve.

This was the 4-year-old's second race and victory, both sprints, since finishing a close and impressive second to Two Step Salsa in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile last March in Dubai. The successful route-to-sprint maneuver qualifies Gayego as one of the "power sprinters," a personal favorite that encompasses those few versatile horses who can win both routes and sprints at the Grade 1 and/or Grade 2 level. That kind can be especially dangerous, and often generous, in the BC Sprint.

Then the speed and pace figures for the Ancient Title came to light, and suddenly an apparent disconnect had complicated what had seemed so undeniably plain 48 hours earlier. Maybe Gayego had not run so quickly after all. Examine the combinations of speed and pace produced by figure analyst Tom Brohamer for three of the relevant races and horses (Par is 111). The Grade 1 Bing Crosby is Del Mar's definitive sprint for 3-year-olds and up.

Race Pace/Speed Race shape Winner
2008 BC Sprint 114/112 Average-Average Midnight Lute
Bing Crosby (G1) 112/110 Average-Average Zensational
Ancient Title (G1) 107/107 Average-Slow Gayego

The Beyer Speed Figure for Gayego's Ancient Title is 102, which complements Brohamer's Quirin-style speed figure of 107 precisely. As handicappers appreciate, a slow final fraction supports the cause of the late runners, often to a fault. When a closer wins from far back in a race having an Average-Slow race shape, it's desirable to discount the performance. Not abandon, to be sure, but merely discount the long late run as perhaps an optical illusion, although it's not as deceptive as would be a race-shape of Fast-Slow. And no one should confuse the late power of Gayego with the late power of Midnight Lute, who resembled absolutely one of Trevor Denman's "express trains."

Nonetheless, the case for Gayego survives on three crucial points. First, the probable pace of the BC Sprint favors Gayego decisively. The 114 pace figure of the 2008 BC Sprint was earned by Fatal Bullet, and that crack sprinter will be back to wreak havoc upon and maybe dominate the front flight. Bob Baffert has been extraordinarily lavish in his high praise of the 3-year-old Zensational, rating him alongside Point Given and Midnight Lute as one of the three best he ever has trained.

Baffert knows young horses exceedingly well and qualifies as more credible than the great majority of horsemen about his horses' abilities, and the trainer has insisted no horse can outrun Zensational early. Still, Zensational's pace figures at the second call have not been as sensational as Fatal Bullet's in the 2008 BC Sprint, the 3-year-old sometimes breaks a bit sluggishly, and if Gayego gets to the leaders in time, the presumption must be he will sail by.

Second, the BC Sprint will be Gayego's third start, and when the second start following a lengthy layoff has been superior to the comeback effort, the third start usually will be a peak performance. Gayego may be forced to run faster by lengths than he did in the Ancient Title, but he won going away in hand. Handicappers can expect a move forward, and Gomez is the best finisher in any jockey colony.

Third, and this may be the conclusive detail, the synthetic Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita generally has favored off-the-pace runners. Running times proved swift on the BC programs of 2008, but the preferred running styles remained off the pace. Midnight Lute, Ventura, Stardom Bound, Zenyatta, and Raven's Pass proved the point with rampaging finishes, and handicappers should anticipate more of the same this year. Only the juvenile winner Midshipman prevailed wire to wire in 2008.

Handicappers who allow it will feel themselves deluged with references to the peculiarities of the Pro-Ride surface, and on the Wednesday-Thursday before the BC programs they likely may hear the track is playing faster than normal. Even so, the outcomes may be more strongly related to running styles. One reason Gayego's speed and pace numbers emerged as slower than expected may be that for the first day of the Oak Tree season, on Sunday the track variant was Fast 1, instead of its customary Slow 1-Slow 3 lengths. Still, off-pace closers such as Gayego came rushing to victory. To be sure, speed figures have proved lower and less reliable on synthetic surfaces, in part because the riders have learned to slow the early pace as best they can.

The remedy involves a familiar tactic, the keeping of day-to-day track profiles. The procedure requires about five minutes a day and consists of recording for sprints and routes separately the position and beaten lengths of the winners at the first and second calls. Exotic bettors are advised to keep similar profiles of the running styles of the horses who have finished second. Unless the front-runners and pressers are winning repeatedly, Zensational and Fatal Bullet will be hard-pressed to hold Gayego safe.

On other BC fronts, handicappers should resolve to avoid the silly mistake I indulged last year but will no longer. In the Juvenile Turf of one mile, prefer the Europeans and strongly. Last year, I was duped into admiring the final fractions of Bittel Road, and although the colt moved noticeably toward the front into the upper stretch, Donativum went by him and the other locals in cruise control. The lesson should be learned.

With the disappointing abstention of Sea the Stars, presumably owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs will want to challenge their super mare Zenyatta to beat the best the boys can offer. Allusions to Zenyatta's supposedly below-par speed figures have been misguided. Again, the slow fractional times common to synthetic surfaces have been largely to blame, and Zenyatta has found herself in arrears of unusually slow fractions on several occasions.

Like the best of the deep closers, Zenyatta delivers two moves. She gains striking position by rallying wide around the field on the far turn and then surges anew through the stretch with long masterful strides. She demonstrated both moves again in the Grade 1 Lady's Secret Stakes on Oct. 10, rallying easily to the front and geared down well before the wire. The final fraction at 1 1/16 miles was 29.10 seconds, and not many can match that. Two back at Del Mar, when jockey Mike Smith lost touch with a milk-wagon pace and almost got her beat for the first time, Zenyatta closed through the short stretch with a rush in 22 and change. And Zenyatta's speed figures have eclipsed par, if slightly, when the pace has allowed as reflected by the 104 Beyer three back in the record.

If she must in the BC Classic, Zenyatta can be expected to run faster than ever, and she likes the Pro-Ride surface quite a lot. If Rip Van Winkle comes as expected, I do not expect Zenyatta to outrun the classy Ballydoyle 3-year-old colt and take down the Classic, but I will not be surprised to see her in the circle.