The Eclipse Award voting is still more than five months away, but the star-studded $250,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. II) Aug. 9 at Saratoga may go a long way in deciding the nation’s top sprinter.
A field of only six was drawn for the Vanderbilt, but all of them are stakes winners capable of taking the six-furlong race. Among the most probable are multiple graded stakes winner Fabulous Strike, closing sprinters Kodiak Kowboy and Benny the Bull, and Eaton's Gift, who enters off a victory in the Smile Sprint Handicap (gr. II) and makes his first start for Chad Brown. Completing the field is the speed demon Fatal Bullet, who was second in last year’s Sentient Flight Group Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I), and Go Go Shoot, entering off consecutive stakes wins at Monmouth Park for Bruce Levine.
The Vanderbilt is the second of two grade II sprints at Saratoga, and immediately follows its sister race, the $150,000 Honorable Miss for fillies and mares. Post time for the Vanderbilt is 6:04 p.m. EDT.
Tea Party Stable’s Fabulous Strike was supposed to run in the 2008 Vanderbilt but suffered a minor foot injury three days before the race at Saratoga. All the 6-year-old has done since then is reel off a 5-3-0 record from nine starts, including victories in the grade III Gravesend Handicap in late December and a sensational score in the June 6 True North Handicap (gr. II) last out when repelling a bid by Benny the Bull to win in a time of 1:07.85 at Belmont Park. He also finished a very tight second in the Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I) to Black Seventeen.
Ramon Dominguez will be back aboard the son of Smart Strike–Fabulous Find, by Lost Code, who has earned more than $1.1 million from 22 starts and relishes the six-furlong distance. The dark bay or brown gelding, who will make his Saratoga debut and break from the outside, has had three consecutive bullet works coming into the race, including a five furlong move in :58.20 Aug. 4 at Penn National.
“It came up a tough field, but I knew it would," said trainer Todd Beattie. “We got the best post in my opinion. We can sit back and wait, maybe stalk. We don’t have to be on the lead. I won’t draw up any diagrams for Ramon. He’ll know what to do.
“He’s doing very well right now. He’s had a full two months off and he’s run many of his best races with that amount of time off. There are some good horses in here, but I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.”
Beattie said Fabulous Strike would be pointed to the Oct. 3 Vosburgh once again if he comes out of the race in good order. He has not made a decision on a Breeders’ Cup appearance as of yet.
If 123-pound high weight Fabulous Strike does not go to the lead, Bear Stables’ Fatal Bullet is likely to. After an aggressive 2008 campaign that included six wins from eight starts and saw the then 3-year-old gelding go from the claiming ranks to within 1 3/4 lengths of winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Woodbine-based trainer Reade Baker said it was best to give his star some time off. His only start this year came July 19 on the Polytrack at Woodbine, where he won the Bold Venture Stakes for the second consecutive season — this time by 2 1/4 lengths off a nearly nine-month layoff.
“He had a knee bruise when we sent him back to California, but more than anything we decided we didn’t want an eight or nine-month campaign with him,” Baker said, “especially because the Breeders’ Cup is the main goal, and now that Dubai is synthetic, we’ll probably send him there (next March).
Baker also said Fatal Bullet, who has made all but two of his 12 starts on synthetics, is training very well on Woodbine’s dirt training track.
“I guess we’ll answer the dirt question,” said Baker, who named Eurico Da Silva to ride. “But he is really doing super right now.”
The two closers in the field are Vinery Stables and Fox Hill Farm’s Kodiak Kowboy and IEAH Stables’ champion sprinter Benny the Bull. Kodiak Kowboy beat Fabulous Strike by a head in the Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct in April and finished off the board a month later in the Churchill Downs (gr. II). He was given almost two months off by trainer Larry Jones before returning with a win in a minor stakes score at Philadelphia Park June 27.
“He’s on the van right now,” Jones said the morning of Aug. 6. “He might have a better chance (of winning the Vanderbilt) riding in that. We know six furlongs is not our greatest cup of tea. He seems like a seven-furlong specialist. Fatal Bullet and Fabulous Strike are very fast. We’re going to get a good trip and set him up for the Forego (gr. I, Sept. 5).”
Benny the Bull has finished runner-up in his two starts this season, losing to both Fabulous Strike in the True North and to Eaton’s Gift as the odds-on favorite in the July 11 Smile Sprint at Calder. The 6-year-old son of Lucky Lionel was fourth in the 2007 Vanderbilt. Edgar Prado will ride for trainer Rick Dutrow Jr.
“It seems like a tougher spot,” said Dutrow. “I don’t like the idea of running against Fabulous Strike because he’s very tough when he’s on his game. When we finished second to Fabulous Strike, I couldn’t have been more happy. He is training super, doing great.”