- by Craig Harzmann
The return of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships to Santa Anita Park Oct. 24-25 will usher in a trio of races new for the event’s 25th edition. In all likelihood, the most action-packed of the bunch will be the Turf Sprint.
Carrying an inaugural purse of $1-million, the Turf Sprint will be contested on the hillside grass course, a layout unlike any other on the planet. To Santa Anita regulars, of course, watching ’em run “down the hill” is a routine experience. Newcomers, however, will be met with a peculiar scene, one that begins with a break from a far-off ledge, where the runners appear like distant targets in a coin-op shooting gallery. In less than a quarter-mile, the competitors face a dip, an incline, and a right-handed bend, steadily gathering momentum behind the palm trees while heading for the expansive final turn.
After the front-runners reach the main track crossover—top-flight sprinters usually peel off the half-mile in less than :43—the field hits the course proper at breakneck speed. Consider it a 75-second adrenaline rush. The design of the layout is indeed tricky, thoroughly demanding the best of horses, jockeys, and handicappers alike. Not surprisingly, familiarity plays a key role in these races, and those who call Southern California home will have a definite edge in the 61⁄2-furlong Turf Sprint Oct. 25.
Leading the way for the locals is California Flag. A son of Avenue of Flags trained by Brian Koriner, the gray/roan gelding turned heads with a course-record shocker in Oak Tree’s Sept. 24 Morvich Handicap (gr. IIIT). Sure to be a solid contender as well is another California-bred 4-year-old, Idiot Proof . The son of Benchmark , runner-up in last year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) and the Gulf News Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) in March, will skip a second crack at the Sprint because he dislikes Santa Anita’s newly installed Pro-Ride synthetic main track, according to trainer Clifford Sise Jr.
Standing in their path, though, is an invader from the East—a mediocre sort on dirt who has morphed into a monster on the grass. Barring the unforeseen, Mr. Nightlinger , who worked at Keeneland Oct. 16 (VIDEO) will enter the gate as the Turf Sprint favorite, and it’s not difficult to see why. A son of Indian Charlie, Mr. Nightlinger became unstoppable once his trainer, Bret Calhoun, put him on turf. The 4-year-old colt has racked up five straight since the switch, all gate-to-wire efforts, including dominating victories in Keeneland’s Shakertown Stakes (gr. IIIT) and the Churchill Downs Aegon Turf Sprint (gr. IIIT) plus a course-record performance in the Arlington Sprint Handicap.
Also slated to head west is True to Tradition, who earned an automatic berth in the Turf Sprint by capturing Woodbine’s Oct. 4 Nearctic Stakes (Can-IIT). Stir in Get Funky, Rouse the Cat, and Heros Rewardas well as foreign entrants Diabolical and Only Answer, and you have the makings of an old-fashioned barnburner. And that’s exactly the way Santa Anita turns up the heat when they run ’em down the hill.
2008 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint Pre-Entries: