11/30/2009 1:00AM

Sprinter debate rings a bell

Tom Keyser
Kodiak Kowboy wins the Cigar Mile on Saturday, adding to a 2009 record that includes victories in the six-furlong Vosburgh and seven-furlong Carter.

NEW YORK - Three years ago, at the same late point in the year, the sprint division was a scramble, much like it is right now. None of the candidates for the divisional Eclipse Award was entirely satisfying. Henny Hughes looked liked he was championship material after he added a decisive score in the Vosburgh to a runaway victory in the King's Bishop. But for many people, Henny Hughes became impossible to vote for when he finished last of 14 in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, even if he did suffer a bad start.

Thor's Echo, who eventually won the divisional title, upset that Breeders' Cup Sprint at 15-1, then came back three weeks later with a workmanlike win in the De Francis Memorial Dash. Yet for many people, the prospect of Thor's Echo as a champion was not an easy pill to swallow. Before the Breeders' Cup, Thor's Echo was 0 for 5 for 2006, including two losses in races restricted to statebreds, and he really was hot only for just a three-week period.

It was in this climate that yours truly floated an idea that Discreet Cat should be considered as a possible candidate for the 2006 sprint championship. Discreet Cat was the best one-turn horse I saw that year by a long, long way. His 10 1/4-length romp in the Jerome was a real eye-catcher, but that was easily topped by his memorable performance in the 2006 Cigar Mile. In that race, Discreet Cat gained 4 1/2 lengths during a second quarter-mile run in 22.11 seconds to battle for the lead, meaning he must have run his second quarter in something like 21.30. Discreet Cat continued to battle for the lead through six furlongs in 1:07.75, which included the run around the far turn. But he still drew away to win by more than three lengths, completing the mile in 1:32.46. Yes, the track at Aqueduct that day was fast. I don't care. This was an awesome performance.

In proposing that Discreet Cat should at least be discussed, I stopped short of suggesting that he actually should be sprint champ because he did not fit the typical parameters for sprinters. Although both of Discreet Cat's U.S. stakes victories were around one turn, they were also at a mile. The only race Discreet Cat had that year that all would agree was a sprint was his comeback outing at Saratoga in a seven-furlong race. He won that race most impressively, too. But it was only an allowance race. Still, Discreet Cat's Cigar Mile . . . Thor's Echo and Henny Hughes could only dream of running as well.

The little reaction to my proposal was surprising. It was clear this notion was too radical for the mainstream. Even respected outside-the-box thinkers wrote it off to a (maybe only) temporary loss of insanity on my part.

That is why I am chuckling to hear that Kodiak Kowboy's victory in Saturday's Cigar Mile has made him a viable candidate for this year's sprint title. As noted, this year's sprint championship picture is murky. Zensational, a 3-year-old, won three straight Grade 1 stakes in Southern California at either six or seven furlongs over older horses. But the horses he beat were always suspect in terms of their quality, and Zensational was exposed when he was beaten as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Dancing in Silks upset the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Oak Tree at 25-1. The price for Dancing in Silks is not necessarily important when it comes to Eclipse Award consideration, but the fact that it was his only unrestricted stakes victory all year is important.

Kodiak Kowboy's position isn't exactly analogous to Discreet Cat's three years ago. Kodiak Kowboy did win two Grade 1 races at distances more accepted as sprint distances than one-turn miles when he won the six-furlong Vosburgh and seven-furlong Carter.

Then again, it must be noted that Kodiak Kowboy, who lost in four other stakes this year, was fortunate when he just got up over Fabulous Strike in both the Carter and Vosburgh. In both races, Kodiak Kowboy capitalized on Fabulous Strike's getting hooked in bitter speed duels. Otherwise, Kodiak Kowboy would not have won those races. When Fabulous Strike (who I believe is the best pure sprinter in the country but who has zero chance at an Eclipse Award) avoided a speed duel in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt and merely prompted the pace, he won decisively, leaving Kodiak Kowboy more than two lengths back in third. Kodiak Kowboy is an imperfect candidate for a championship because there are questions as to how good he really is. In 2006, there were no such doubts surrounding Discreet Cat.

So what has changed so much in just three years that a one-turn mile race like the Cigar Mile might now actually put a horse such as Kodiak Kowboy over the top for the sprint championship? Certainly, the advent of synthetic-track racing, primarily in California, is a factor because it has added a layer of difficulty to Eclipse Award considerations the same way it has to conventional handicapping. Or maybe, it took a horse like Discreet Cat to break the ice and show that, in the right context, a one-turn mile can indeed be considered a sprint.