02/19/2007 1:00AM

Latent Heat, Proud Tower Too put on a show in San Carlos


Latent Heat, with Edgar Prado up (right), defeats Proud Tower Too (left) en route to winning the San Carlos Handicap on Saturday at Santa Anita.P

NEW YORK - It is important to remind oneself every now and then at this time of year that the plethora of important prep races available to 3-year-olds hoping to earn their way to the Kentucky Derby is not the be- all and end-all when it comes to important stakes racing.

Oh sure, the road to the Kentucky Derby is currently the first topic of conversation when talk turns to premier stakes racing, and that will be the case until the Derby is actually run. That is as it should be, since the Derby is, with all due respect to the Breeders' Cup, America's biggest and most popular race. But to focus on the Derby picture at the near exclusion of just about everything else stakes-wise would have meant missing out on a great race Saturday at Santa Anita.

The race was the San Carlos Handicap, and what distinguished it from the garden-variety Grade 2 sprint stakes, if there is such a thing, is that it was terrific on a number of levels. First, it was an immensely entertaining event, with Latent Heat and Proud Tower Too slugging it out from start to finish. Both ran winning races, and neither deserved to lose. It was just Proud Tower Too's bad luck that he was the one who came out on the short end, literally.

Of course, there are lots of races where horses run too well to lose. So what helped set the San Carlos apart is that the two principals were acknowledged as very good horses going into the race. Latent Heat, who was a popular horse among the wise guys last year when he was momentarily on the Derby trail, suggested he had arrived as a prime-time performer on opening day of the Santa Anita meet when he won the quickly run Grade 1 Malibu. Proud Tower Too, meanwhile, won the Malibu of 2005, and last year traveled halfway across the world to win the Dubai Golden Shaheen, the big sprint race on the Dubai World Cup program.

And the other thing about the San Carlos that made it special is it told us a bit more than just the obvious, which is that Latent Heat and Proud Tower Too have what it takes to be prominent members of the sprint division all season. More about that in a moment.

It is probably nitpicking, especially when you consider he was beaten only a neck - and know that this is coming from one who liked him in the San Carlos - but the one thing that didn't sit quite right was the strategy employed with Proud Tower Too.

Proud Tower Too demonstrated on many prior occasions that he had the speed to open up early on the San Carlos field. Instead, after getting to the front a few strides out of the gate, jockey David Cohen took hold of Proud Tower Too, and conceded the early lead to Latent Heat. In his postrace comments, Cohen admitted this was actually part of the plan.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to question the wisdom of a strategy that allows an even-money favorite like Latent Heat easy access into contention, while at the same time negating a big tactical advantage, which was Proud Tower Too's ability to open up on the field and put his opposition in a hole.

In fairness, you can't say the approach of rating Proud Tower Too was a total failure, because he still came very close to winning. It could be that this strategy was used with an eye toward best positioning Proud Tower Too for his defense of the Dubai Golden Shaheen, something Cohen also alluded to after the race.

Well, the Golden Shaheen does have a purse more than 10 times that of the San Carlos, but that is something those who bet Proud Tower Too on Saturday don't want to hear about. Either way, it's easy to wonder if the outcome of the San Carlos would have been different had Proud Tower Too not been taken out of his natural speed game.

As for what the San Carlos told us beyond the obvious merits of Latent Heat and Proud Tower Too, it seemed to lend considerable credence to the impression many came away with at the end of last month's Sunshine Millions Day, which is that Smokey Stover is currently the best sprinter in the nation.

Proud Tower Too ran a big race finishing second in the Sunshine Millions Sprint, fighting back after being displaced on the lead in the stretch. But Smokey Stover, an unknown commodity going into the Sprint, ran giant that day. He blew past both Proud Tower Too and the highly accomplished Bordonaro in the stretch as if both were Krazy Glued to the rail, scoring in runaway fashion. Given how well Proud Tower Too came back to perform in a meaningful sprint stakes, we have some strong corroborative evidence that Smokey Stover is indeed now the best sprinter in the country.