09/24/2003 12:00AM

Plenty of question marks remain on the top contenders

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Coast to coast, the leading Breeders' Cup Sprint candidates face legitimate questions. For the top sprinter in the East, Aldebaran, it is the six-furlong Sprint distance. Aldebaran is a closer who has never run in a race that short. For the top sprinter in the West, Yankee Gentleman, the question is class. Yankee Gentleman has never even placed in a graded stakes race.

Uncertainty cuts to other handicapping fundamentals, including speed. The top 3-year-old sprinters Cajun Beat, Great Notion, Valid Video, and Zavata may not be fast enough. Not yet, at least. The Sprint typically is won with a Beyer Speed Figure of 114 or higher, a number that is out of range this year for most 3-year-olds.

On the matter of current form, there is more doubt. Shake You Down's last start was in a six-horse allowance race, wet-track specialist Private Horde won a non-graded stakes race by a length, and Beau's Town has not raced since July. Captain Squire ran poorly last time, and is likely to pass the Sprint regardless of how he fares against Yankee Gentleman and Zavata in the Grade 1 Ancient Title on Oct. 5 at Santa Anita.

While the Ancient Title will provide much definition, one question that will remain unresolved is the distance dilemma for Aldebaran. The late-runner has won five graded stakes races this year at seven furlongs or longer. His last race was a romping win against Grade 1 company going seven furlongs on Aug. 31. Aldebaran will not run again until the Sprint.

Midwest-based Beau's Town, winner of a Grade 2 race in July at Del Mar, was expected to make the Sprint his next start, but trainer Cole Norman announced this week that the Grade 3 Phoenix Breeders' Cup on Oct. 3 at Keeneland is next. New York-based Shake You Down, whose 121 Beyer in July is the year's best six-furlong figure, will train up to the Sprint.

California sprinters are looking for a leader, possibly Yankee Gentleman. He followed a two-other-than allowance comeback with a huge Sept. 6 win in a non-graded Del Mar stakes race, earning a 117 Beyer. With zero BC points, Yankee Gentleman needs a big effort in the Ancient Title to be guaranteed a Sprint berth. But, a six-furlong workout Wednesday was cut short after a half-mile, casting doubt on his condition.

The Ancient Title will be deep. Bluesthestandard has recovered from illness that compromised his summer form, and again is training like a top horse. If he runs well in the Ancient Title, owner Jeffrey Sengara will pay the $90,000 supplement to make Bluesthestandard eligible for the Sprint.

Avanzado and Captain Squire also run in the Ancient Title, but neither is likely for the Sprint. Avanzado's connections will not pay the $90,000 supplement; Captain Squire's trainer, Jeff Mullins, said the three-week turnaround is asking a lot for a horse who needs five weeks or more between starts. Zavata, eighth in the King's Bishop, will face older horses for the first time in the Ancient Title, where a good showing puts him back in the hunt.