As part of the Breeders’ Cup Championships’ “Win and You’re In” series, the winner of the six-furlong Vanderbilt will automatically secure a place in the starting gate for the Grade 1 Sentient Breeders’ Cup Sprint to be held on October 25th at Santa Anita. Carded as race 7 on Saturday (ABC-TV; 4:12 p.m.), the Vanderbilt will kick off a $500,000 guaranteed all-stakes Pick 4 that will conclude with the day’s featured race, the Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap.
Following a front-running win under jockey Edgar Prado in the seven-furlong Grade 1 Carter at Aqueduct on April 5th, trainer Bruce Levine and owner Roddy Valente planned to run Bustin Stones in the prestigious Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap – the “Met Mile” -- at Belmont Park on May 26th, but the New York home-bred came down with a fever and was ruled out of the race.
While the setback was unfortunate, Levine feels Bustin Stones has bounced back fully and is ready for a top effort.
“Naturally, we’re looking for him to win to start off the rest of the year,” Levine said. “He is strong and fresh, and will probably show more speed.”
Of the pressure to stay undefeated, Levine said, “After you lose once, it takes a lot of pressure off. Being undefeated adds pressure, but what are you going to do? You’ve got to run. There looks like there is going to be a lot of speed in the race, so there should be a lot of ding-dong up front. But this horse has never been behind another horse. They’re going to have to worry about him.”
Two California-based horses also look to regain their prominence atop the sprint division in the Vanderbilt.
The most accomplished runner in the field is the Doug O’Neill-trained Thor’s Echo (also carrying 118 pounds), although in his last three starts he has failed to show the talent that propelled him to back-to-back Grade 1 victories in 2006 in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs and the Frank J. DeFrancis Dash at Laurel on his way to an Eclipse Award for top sprinter.
After his championship season, Thor’s Echo was purchased by Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum’s Zabeel Racing International and transferred to Dubai to be trained by Seemar Satish. He made two unsuccessful starts for Satish in Dubai, including a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Nad Al Sheba, before being transferred back to O’Neill.
Thor’s Echo has made one start since, in the Grade 2 True North Handicap on Belmont Stakes Day. He pressed a pace of :22 and :44 4/5 set by Man of Danger and faded to fourth behind division leader Benny the Bull.
Despite the defeat, O’Neill was happy with his horse’s effort.
“I thought he ran dynamite last time coming off that very long lay-off,” said the 40-year-old. “If he improves a little bit off of that, I think he’ll have a good shot. He still has that same competitive spirit. He’s a little taller and a little thicker -- more mature [than he was in 2006]. He’s a very special horse and we hope he shows it on Saturday.”
O’Neill also explained the decision to ship Thor’s Echo back to New York.
“We thought that since he’s proven on dirt we would keep him in dirt preps so he could have some momentum going in to the Breeders’ Cup. Southern California’s three tracks – Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita-- all have synthetic racing surfaces.
Black Seventeen may not be as well known as some other contenders in the race, but if he returns to or improves on his 2007 form that could change. Last year as a three-year-old, Black Seventeen flourished as a sprinter after his eight-place finish in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby convinced his connections to abandon their Kentucky Derby hopes.
Trainer Brian Koriner cut the Florida-bred son of Is It True back to six furlongs and the colt rewarded him with three decisive victories, capped off by a one-length win in the Grade 2 Carry Back at Calder last July.
Black Seventeen was subsequently taken out of training because of ankle problems, and did not return until last month in a listed stakes race at Golden Gate Fields. He finished second in that race with jockey Aaron Gryder aboard, who will ship in for the Vanderbilt.
The field for Saturday’s Grade 2 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap:
PP. HORSE TRAINER JOCKEY WGT.
1. Thor’s Echo Doug O’Neill Corey Nakatani 118
2. First Defence Bobby Frankel Javier Castellano 116
3. Black Seventeen Brian Koriner Aaron Gryder 116
4. Sammarco Mike Hushion Channing Hill 112
5. Abraaj Kiaran McLaughlin Alan Garcia 115
6. Bustin Stones Bruce Levine Edgar Prado 118
7. E Z Warrior Bill Mott Kent Desormeaux 121