As usual, expect the unexpected to happen
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. -- No race typifies the unpredictability of the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint more than last year's edition. Speed demons Squirtle Squirt, Xtra Heat, and Caller One engaged in a furious pace duel over a Belmont racetrack that favored outside closers, but the speedy trio survived the battle to finish first, second, and third respectively, in the six-furlong race.
A similar scenario seems inevitable in Saturday's renewal of the Sprint, with a field of 13 that is loaded with even more early speed. Included is last year's runner-up, the filly Xtra Heat, along with division leader and likely favorite Orientate.
Nobody understands the uncertainty of the Sprint better than trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who won the race in 1988 with Gulch.
"You never know what will happen," said Lukas, who saddles both Orientate and Day Trader on Saturday. "They just pack them all in there and let them go. I really feel good about Orientate the way he's been doing, but this may be the toughest of all the Breeders' Cup races to win."
Orientate has won each of his last four starts, including the Grade 1 Forego Handicap. In that race, he stalked and easily ran away from defending Sprint champion Squirtle Squirt after opening fractions of 21.40 and 44.20 seconds. Orientate is unbeaten in six main track starts under seven furlongs and has never been defeated with Jerry Bailey aboard. Bailey again has the call.
But Orientate has never won a race when not within a half-length of the lead or from farther back than second position after the opening quarter-mile. And those spots may well be taken during the run down the backside considering the presence of Xtra Heat and fellow speedballs Thunderello, Carson Hollow, Bonapaw, Touch Tone, and Day Trader.
Both Thunderello and Day Trader may have little choice but to rush for the lead after drawing post positions 1 and 13, respectively. Carson Hollow has never been headed at any call in each of her first six starts while Touch Tone ran a 21.20 opening quarter dueling Xtra Heat for the lead in the Phoenix Breeders' Cup.
Trainer Norman Miller is confident Bonapaw can rate just off the leaders and kick on through the stretch. The only member of the field with a win over the track - in fact, he's perfect in two starts at Arlington - Bonapaw has continued to train superbly since dominating Belmont's Grade 1 Vosburgh Handicap on Sept. 21.
"My horse will put himself into the race, and it's up to Gerard to make the right move when necessary," Miller said, referring to jockey Gerard Melancon.
If the speed does cave in down the stretch, Kona Gold and Swept Overboard appear the most likely beneficiaries.
Kona Gold, the 2000 Sprint winner, makes a record fifth straight appearance in the race and has trained sharply for trainer Bruce Headley, who also sends out Ancient Title winner Kalookan Queen.
Swept Overboard, a late-running fourth in the 2001 Sprint, is making only his second start since registering an impressive victory in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, a one-turn mile, on May 27. He finished a disappointing fourth behind Kalookan Queen when he returned to action earlier this month in the Ancient Title.