10/24/2008 12:00AM

Midnight Lute may be ready to wake up


ARCADIA, Calif. - Midnight Lute has not won a race in a year, has started just once during the past 11 months, has been training in a bar shoe to protect a quarter crack on his left foot, will compete without blinkers for the first time in his career, and is winless over his home course at Santa Anita. So does the reigning champion have any chance of successfully defending his title in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Sprint?

Trainer Bob Baffert says yes, which should be enough to make bettors take a serious look at Midnight Lute despite his obvious drawbacks in a small but highly competitive lineup for this year's edition of the $2 million Sprint. The field of nine equals the smallest in the 25-year history of the event, matched only by the nine starters who ran here in 1986.

Midnight Lute was without question the horse to beat coming into last year's Sprint after posting a 124 Beyer Speed Figure winning the Grade 1 Forego eight weeks earlier. And Midnight Lute delivered as promised, rallying from dead last over a soggy track to dominate his nine rivals by 4 3/4 widening lengths in one of the most impressive performances of the 2007 Breeders' Cup.

But things have not gone well this season for Midnight Lute, whose only start in 2008 resulted in a 10th-place finish in Del Mar's Pat O'Brien Handicap on Aug. 24. The 85 Beyer Figure he received that day was 39 points lower than his final prep for the '07 Sprint.

"I really shouldn't have run him in that last race," said Baffert. "He just wasn't a happy horse at Del Mar, was acting up in the gate, dragged his foot at the start, and ripped the shoe off."

But Baffert said that the ensuing quarter crack from the incident has healed well over the past two months, and that Midnight Lute is a different horse since returning to Santa Anita.

"The crack has healed nicely, he's in a really good frame of mind over here, and his last three works have been great," said Baffert. "Now all he needs is a little racing luck."

Baffert will remove both the bar shoe and Midnight Lute's blinkers for the Sprint.

"He doesn't need the blinkers any more," said Baffert. "The whole key is if he breaks well. If he can just stay within about six lengths down the backstretch, I think he can catch them again."

While Midnight Lute remains relatively unproven over synthetic tracks, several members of the opposition have impressive resumes over the surface, including likely co-favorites Street Boss and Cost of Freedom.

Street Boss had his five-race win streak snapped when beaten a half-length by Cost of Freedom in the Grade 1 Ancient Title in his final Sprint prep.

"He went pretty wide last time and we really didn't beat ours up to finish," said owner-trainer Bruce Headley. "There is a lot of speed in this field, and it will probably come down to who has the best luck."

Cost of Freedom has been a Cinderella story for trainer John Sadler and owners Gary and Cecil Barber, who claimed the 5-year-old gelding for $50,000 on July 28 and have since been rewarded with two impressive victories, including his game triumph in the Ancient Title. But Cost of Freedom and jockey Tyler Baze may have their hand forced just a little earlier than they would like breaking from post 1 in the Sprint.

Trainer Todd Beattie, on the other hand, is just happy he's not on the rail. His horse Fabulous Strike dropped a tough head decision to Black Seventeen after breaking from post 1 and dueling from start to finish in the Grade 1 Vosburgh in his final Breeders' Cup prep. The outing was just the second this year for Fabulous Strike, who was forced to miss the 2007 Sprint due to illness and, like Midnight Lute, has been plagued by foot issues this fall.

In Summation is another artificial-surface specialist based at Santa Anita who, like Fabulous Strike, pointed for but did not make the 2007 Sprint. In Summation would be dangerous if able to repeat the efforts that produced back-to-back graded stakes wins over this course in January.