06/04/2008 11:00PM

Thor's Echo returns to challenge 'Benny'

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The best sprinter of 2006 and the best sprinter of 2008 meet for a showdown at Belmont Park on Saturday when Thor's Echo returns from a lengthy layoff to face Benny the Bull in a compelling edition of the Grade 2, $250,000 True North Handicap.

Benny the Bull, who has emerged as the world's elite sprinter with two victories this year, including the Dubai Golden Shaheen in his last start March 29, should be a strong favorite in the six-furlong True North. But the return of Thor's Echo adds considerable intrigue to the first of five graded stakes that will precede the Belmont Stakes here.

Thor's Echo was the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter of 2006, when he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint and then the De Francis Dash. Since then, he was fallen into a black hole. After being privately purchased, he made two starts in Dubai in 2007, finishing sixth both times. He then was returned to the United States and reunited with trainer Doug O'Neill, but it has taken O'Neill a year to get Thor's Echo back to the races.

"He had a little flake in an ankle. We cleaned that up, and then it took a while to get him back," said O'Neill, who sent Thor's Echo from California to New York on Wednesday. "We probably took longer than we needed with him, but we wanted to do that with a horse of his quality. He's doing great. He still looks a little soft, but he's training with a lot of energy."

He will need it, because Benny the Bull is primed to pick up right where he left off, according to his trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr.

"He looked like he was good to go when he got back from Dubai," Dutrow said. "We thought it would be cool to run him on Belmont Day. We looked at other places, but we couldn't find anything better. And we decided to get the word out early that he would run here, so that maybe anyone thinking of running a nice horse might run elsewhere."

Benny the Bull, the 123-pound highweight, has raced 15 times, but this will be his first start at Belmont.

In addition to Thor's Echo, six others are entered in the True North, including Suave Jazz, trained by Dutrow's brother Tony.

Suave Jazz returned from a 6 1/2-month layoff three weeks ago to finish second in the Maryland Sprint Handicap on the Preakness Stakes undercard at Pimlico.

Abraaj came back from a nine-month layoff to defeat a third-level allowance field on May 2 at Belmont, where he has finished in the money in all four of his starts.