10/23/2001 11:00PM

In Sprint, who is the fastest of the fast?


PHILADELPHIA - While thousands may spend hours this week pondering the mystery of European form and others may be searching for answers in a fascinating Distaff, the real players only want to know the answer to one thing: Who makes the lead in the Sprint?

If you love early speed and believe in its enduring truth, it is simply an answer you need to find. Knowing the answer may not solve the race. There is a chance it may not even be relevant to the outcome. Still, this matters.

It's for bragging rights. It's to show I know more than you do. And what could possibly be more important than that.

For answers, I went to the past performances and the man I consider the guru of speed.

Caller One has raced 15 times. He has been beaten to the lead once. And won the race anyway. In last year's Sprint, Caller One missed the break and still ran the first quarter in 20.82 seconds. Yes, Churchill Downs was a paved highway that day, but that's still serious speed.

Ray Tannahill, one of America's great players and a man who likes speed as much as breathing, dismisses Caller One.

"He has no heart, " he said. "He could not even hold second last year."

In fact, Caller One, after holding a clear lead at the eighth pole, finished fourth, three lengths behind Kona Gold.

Still, Caller One could make the front Saturday. Even the guru of speed believes that could happen. Caller One's trainer, Jim Chapman, is certain of it.

"As sharp as he is, he'll be on the lead Saturday, " Chapman said.

What of Squirtle Squirt? A 3-year-old, Squirtle Squirt has made the front in all five of his starts this year, which just happen to correspond with his time in the barn of the hottest man on earth, trainer Bobby Frankel.

"Squirtle Squirt will never be heard from," Tannahill said.

Chapman apparently agrees.

"I want Squirtle Squirt right there with him, " Chapman said. "I want him right there where we can press him. He'll be done after three-eighths."

How about Five Star Day?

He made the front in eight straight races before ducking out early in last year's Sprint and finishing last. The horse has made the front in just one of three races this year. Good luck.

And there's Mozart, the Irish-bred star.

The only time in his last four he didn't lead early was when the saddle slipped at the start. The colt won anyway.

Realistically, Europeans have no real concept of early speed. Then, there's the dirt. And there is all of this heat.

Which brings us to Xtra Heat. An amazing 3-year-old filly, she has won 17 of 20 starts with two seconds. Forget her 10th in last year's Juvenile Fillies around two turns. This is a flat-out sprinter.

She has made the front in nine of 11 starts this year. In the other two, she was a head back. It is very unfortunate that Rick Wilson, one of the best gate riders anywhere, won't be able to ride her Saturday. He is out with a broken leg. But Jorge Chavez is certainly a capable replacement.

And, according to the speed guru, Xtra Heat does not need the lead to win. This, however, does not mean she can't or won't get the lead.

Because of all the speed, many are looking for the race to fall apart and focusing on the closers. There is a problem. Unless you are willing to lock in on Kona Gold (not a bad thing), there is a whole group of closers that look similar.

Which bring us back to the speed. Is there a speed of the speed? I'm not sure. Regardless, the one horse in the race who has shown everything is rather simple to identify. It's Xtra Heat. All she does is win.

If Xtra Heat wins the Sprint and neither Flute, Fleet Renee, nor Exogenous wins the Distaff, she will get my vote in two separate Eclipse Award categories - best sprinter and best 3-year-old filly.