09/11/2010 2:34PM

Nine months in, a muddled sprint division


PHOENIX – The only consistency in the male sprint division this year has been its inconsistency.

With two months left until the Breeders’ Cup, there is no clear-cut division leader. Want proof? Of the 23 Grade 1 or Grade 2 races this year between six and seven furlongs on dirt and synthetic, the only horses who have won multiple stakes are top 3-year-olds Discreetly Mine, who won the Amsterdam and King’s Bishop, and D’ Funnybone, who won the Hutcheson, the Swale, and the Woody Stephens.

That’s nice and all, but all their wins came against 3-year-olds. Discreetly Mine scored his two big wins at Saratoga, but he still has to prove himself against elders. D’ Funnybone’s success came early in the year, and he has not been nearly as sharp lately.

Also noteworthy are the horses who are not on the list of sprint winners, particularly Vineyard Haven, Dancing in Silks, Crown of Thorns, and Gayego − the latter three finished first, third, and fourth in last year’s BC Sprint. In Crown of Thorns’s defense, he has made one start since the Breeders’ Cup, but his connections are talking about going longer, so he may not even be a BC Sprint candidate.

Munnings looked as though he could take control of the division earlier this year, but he is now a face on a milk carton after some dull outings. Vineyard Haven has run well, including a win in the ungraded James Marvin, but he hasn’t shown quite the same spark as he did earlier in his career, when he won three Grade 1’s.

The winners of the two premier sprints for older horses at Saratoga, the Grade 2 Vanderbilt and Grade 1 Forego, probably won’t show up for the BC Sprint come Nov. 6. Majesticperfection, winner of the Vanderbilt, suffered a serious injury last week and has been retired. Here Comes Ben, the Forego winner, may point for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile instead of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint because his connections think six furlongs at that level may be a bit too sharp for him.
Of course, limiting the list to only Grade 1 or Grade 2 races eliminates a lot of other races in which horses ran big in victory: Hollywood Hit’s 114 Beyer in the Grade 3 Vigil at Woodbine; This Ones for Phil’s 108 Beyer in the Sunshine Millions Sprint at Gulfstream; and Custom for Carlos’s 106 Beyer in the Grade  3 Count Fleet at Oaklawn. Other top Beyer-earning sprints include Riley Tucker (110), Wall Street Wonder (109), Pashito the Che (108), and Fatal Bullet (107).

But the purpose of this exercise is to examine the division at the top.

Discreetly Mine’s success may mean that, like last year, he is the one to beat in his division. In 2009, it was Bob Baffert’s West Coast sizzler Zensational who drew raves off a streak of big wins. Alas, a poor draw and poor start helped doom him on Breeders’ Cup Day.

Besides having to deal with elders, the other issue for Discreetly Mine is that there is a host of other significant speed. Atta Boy Roy takes a backseat to no one in terms of early zip, and others figure to be laying it down early in the Sprint. A hot contested pace seems assured, with no one quick enough to clear and be the speed of the speed.

Things still look favorable for a stalker or closer, but whom? The Sprint is usually run at such a fast pace that you can’t be like Birdonthewire and sit miles back and expect to reel them all in. It’s not impossible, as victories by closers such as Cardmania in 1993 and Lit de Justice in 1996 would attest, but everything needs to go perfect for that to happen.

The one closer still of interest is Warrior’s Reward. He was given a summer vacation after chasing Quality Road in the Grade 1 Met Mile, and his comeback run when fourth in the Grade 1 Forego on Sept. 4 wasn’t bad at all, considering the layoff. He has also done his best work at Churchill, posting a 113 Beyer in May 2009, when he won a seven-furlong allowance race and rallied strongly to be second in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap at seven furlongs May 1 on the Kentucky Derby undercard.

But a big caveat remains: Those races were at seven furlongs; Warrior’s Reward has run six furlongs just once. And while he ran well, rallying strongly for second, he still got beat in a second-level allowance race at Churchill last fall. It’s possible that six furlongs may simply be too sharp for him.

So this year’s Sprint picture remains about as clear as mud. We still have another two months for things to get sorted out, but the way the previous 10 months have gone, those two months might just make things even more confusing.