12/11/2006 12:00AM

Saint Stephen a serious threat


PHOENIX - An interesting thing is transpiring on these synthetic surfaces. Turf horses are moving to these main tracks and doing very well. At Hollywood Park, we are seeing turf horses move to the Cushion Track and thrive, even at the upper levels. Just last weekend Foxysox and Round Heels, two confirmed turf horses, switched surfaces for the Grade 2 Bayakoa and ran one-two. Warning Zone, a Grade 3 winner on the turf, is being pointed for a run at the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity not only because of the talent he has shown on the turf, but because of this trend and the fact he has worked so well on the Cushion Track.

In fact, the Cushion Track races often seem to unfold like turf races, and that's among the reasons a horse like Saint Stephen may be well situated to make some noise in Sunday's Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at 1o1/8 miles.

He has been a confirmed turf runner most of his career - 20 of his 22 starts have come on turf, as have all 6 wins, all 4 seconds, and both thirds. Trained by Christophe Clement, Saint Stephen hasn't been seen in some time - since impressively winning the Henry Clark, on the turf at Pimlico last April. He reportedly got sick after that race, and his connections have given him plenty of time to recover. Have no fear, either - Clement is strong off the bench, and Saint Stephen, a 6-year-old son of Saint Ballado, has been working smartly over the Hollywood track.

This not only seems the perfect time to try to get Grade 3-winning status and try a synthetic surface, but Saint Stephen may get a great setup as well. Ball Four and Flamethrowintexan are expected to go once the gates open. That means Saint Stephen can bide his time, let the speed guys go nuts, and then try to reel them in.

Thor's Echo the real article

Discreet Cat may be the best sprinter in the land, maybe the world. But to suggest him as champion sprinter defeats the purpose of voting, and, for all intents and purposes, of racing and settling the issue on the track.

He didn't sprint. That means it's just a guess on our part, a supposition. If that's the case, vote for Bernardini as top sprinter. He won the one-turn Withers in dominating fashion, and if you put him in any sprint he probably wins. If that's the case, let's name Nobiz Like Shobiz champion 2-year-old, just because some feel he might be the best horse, despite the fact another horse (Street Sense) actually accomplished more and won the race that counted.

In their heydays, the best horses - Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, etc. - surely would have been dominant sprinters had they played that game. But they didn't for the most part, and to have awarded them a championship on the notion they would have been the best sprinters would have been plain wrong. Thor's Echo may not be Precisionist or Phone Trick or Groovy or Cherokee Run, but he did sprint, and Thor's Echo not only won the race that counted the most, the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but also won a big Grade 1 after that (the De Francis) to validate the win. He also was strong in the Grade 1 Golden Shaheen in Dubai earlier in the year. Prior to his BC Sprint win he was a fine second in the Grade 1 Ancient Title at Oak Tree at Santa Anita (behind Bordonaro), so the resume is there and his quality has been on display all year long.

Discreet Cat, meanwhile, looked awesome winning the mile Jerome and Cigar Mile, but his only sprint, a seven-furlong one at that, came in an optional claimer, not even a stakes race. The award isn't for the best one-turn horse - it's for best sprinter.

You can say Thor's Echo didn't win a lot of sprints, but Discreet Cat didn't even run in any six-furlong races. And for all the hullabaloo over Discreet Cat's big Cigar Mile win, his Beyer Speed Figure was 116, the same as Thor's Echo earned winning the BC Sprint. That fig is Discreet Cat's top Beyer; Thor's Echo has recorded two 116's (he also got that figure when he ran second in the Ancient Title).

Not every champion or Horse of the Year is a great horse, just as in other sports where the MVP or Cy Young winner may not be destined for the Hall of Fame. But that's neither here nor there. Thor's Echo may not be the most satisfying choice to some after seeing the likes of Kona Gold, Orientate, and Speightstown dominate the sprint scene, but he did what he had to do, and he'll get my vote for certain.