07/25/2008 11:00PM

Thor's Echo primed for a peak effort

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Thor's Echo had every reason to come up short when he finished fourth in the Grade 2 True North Handicap last month at Belmont Park.

The champion sprinter of 2006, Thor's Echo had not run in 14 months and was facing Benny the Bull, who has ascended to the top of the sprint division this year.

Saturday, Thor's Echo has every reason to come up huge in the Grade 2, $250,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. With a race under his belt and the likelihood of a fast pace, Thor's Echo could be in the ideal spot to return to the winner's circle for the first time in two years.

Thor's Echo will take on six talented sprinters in the Vanderbilt, a six-furlong race that is part of the Breeders' Cup Win and You're In initiative. That means the winner earns a spot in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. Thor's Echo won the 2006 BC Sprint at Churchill Downs.

Thor's Echo, who was sold to Sheikh Rashid al-Maktoum after his championship campaign, raced in Dubai twice in 2007 before sustaining an ankle injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. He returned to North America and O'Neill late last year.

In the True North, a fresh Thor's Echo prompted the pace before giving way late. He was only beaten 1 3/4 lengths by Benny the Bull.

"I figured for sure he'd need the race,'' O'Neill said. "For a moment there turning for home I thought we might get this thing done. I thought he ran a great race and I'm so happy the way he bounced out of it.''

O'Neill is reuniting Thor's Echo with Corey Nakatani, who was aboard for the Breeders' Cup Sprint and De Francis Dash, both of which Thor's Echo won from a stalking position.

"He's versatile enough where if they are humming along early he can sit in behind and take advantage if they're going too fast,'' O'Neill said. "We're bringing in a horse that should be pretty live with any racing luck whatsoever.''

California shipper Black Seventeen, the undefeated Bustin Stones, and E Z Warrior figure to supply ample pace. Black Seventeen, who won the Grade 2 Carry Back last year, came off an 11-month layoff to finish second in a stakes over Golden Gate's synthetic surface. Trainer Brian Koriner is hoping his horse got enough out of that race to move forward for this return to dirt.

"You would have liked to pick up the Form and see a little less speed in the lineup, but he's shown before he can duel and kick away,'' Koriner said. "If he runs his race I think he'll be awful tough.''

Bustin Stones, who has won all of his six starts, including Grade 1 Carter, has never been behind another horse in a race.

"There looks like there is going to be a lot of speed in the race, so there should be a lot of ding-donging up front,'' Levine said. "But this horse has never been behind another horse. They're going to have to worry about him.''

First Defence and E Z Warrior, second and third, respectively, in last year's Grade 1 King's Bishop here last year, complete the field.