Sprint Preview: Speed Thrills

The contest to determine the world's fastest Thoroughbred will feature approximately a dozen speedsters from all types of backgrounds. In addition, the NAPA Auto Parts Sprint (gr. I) will mark the only Breeders' Cup race featuring a "War of the Sexes." As many as three fillies and mares--Kalookan Queen, Carson Hollow, and Xtra Heat, will take on the boys to see which gender will prevail over six furlongs.

It is said that speed kills, and there is an abundance of front-runners among the likely Sprint candidates. A cursory look at past performances reveals a half-dozen entrants who are accustomed to showing the way in most of their races. Trip handicappers would say that scenario sets the race up for a closer, but such simplification can prove dangerous, since one front-runner just as often proves faster than the rest and may traverse the course without feeling breath on its neck.

In fact, the history of the Sprint shows a fairly even split between winners who raced off the pace and those who were on the front end. In the mid-'90s, the race was won by a bevy of horses that came from the clouds, including Cardmania (1993), Cherokee Run (1994), Lit de Justice (1996), and Elmhurst (1997). Since then, speed types like Reraise (1998), Artax (1999), and Squirtle Squirt (2001) have gotten the glory.

Several subplots spice up the Sprint stew for 2002. Kona Gold, the 2000 winner, is back for an unprecedented fifth consecutive Breeders' Cup, all in the Sprint. He has raced just three times since his disappointing seventh in last year's edition, and only twice this year. The 8-year-old would be the most senior winner of the race, a year older than Elmhurst and Cardmania when they took the honors.

Xtra Heat, who came within a half-length of winning a year ago, returns for another go around. The 4-year-old filly is dismissed by some for running at lesser tracks against lesser company, but that seems a shortsighted view. Besides her smasher in last year's running, Xtra Heat has won a pair of graded stakes at Belmont Park this year, and recently beat the boys at Keeneland in the Phoenix Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. III). She will also be in receipt of three pounds from the boys who are 4-year-olds and up in the race. Xtra Heat has shown the ability to shake clear even after being hooked, and figures to be considerably better backed than her 17-1 odds of a year ago.

Vying for favoritism will be Orientate, who has reeled off a quartet of impressive victories since being shortened up in distance by conditioner D. Wayne Lukas in June. The 4-year-old son of Mt. Livermore was competitive in graded stakes going two turns earlier in the year in California, but really blossomed when turned back to sprints. He was a daylight winner at three different tracks over the summer, and will be coming in fresh off a nearly two-month span away from the races.

There is much to like about the 6-year-old gelding Bonapaw, a millionaire thanks to his recent win in the Vosburgh (gr. I) at Belmont a month ago. Blue-collar owners Jimmy and Dennis Richard have raced him chiefly around the Midwest, and Bonapaw has won exactly half of his 34 lifetime outings. He has the advantage of two stakes wins across the Arlington layout, those coming in the Hanshin Handicap (gr. III) July 20 at one mile and the Arlington Sprint Handicap Aug. 24 at six furlongs. Like Xtra Heat and Orientate, this one likes to do his running up front.

Three-year-old filly Carson Hollow brings even more early lick to the test, and is just a nose away from a perfect six-for-six record. Crafty C. T., Gygistar, Day Trader, and Disturbingthepeace have all shown flexibility in being able to front-run or track leaders, while Swept Overboard and Kona Gold are the two confirmed closers.