By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Since the creation of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (gr. I) in 2008, several new turf sprint races have been created at various tracks across the United States, giving great depth to the expanding division. The division has received an additional boost this year thanks to the creation of the $300,000 Evangeline Downs Turf Sprint, which will have its inaugural running this Saturday. The five-furlong race has drawn an exceptional field of ten, with several big-name stakes winners shipping in from around the country. The races promises to be an exciting one, so let’s take a look at who’s running!
Evangeline Downs Turf Sprint
The morning line favorite at 5-2 is Gantry, who won the 5 1/2-furlong Colonel Power Stakes two starts back over the Fair Grounds turf course. The performance was a strong one, as he not only received a large Beyer speed figure, he did so while clearly defeating Marchman, who returned to win a pair of graded stakes races and finish second in another. Gantry’s most recent performance was a sub-par one, as he could only manage a sixth-place finish in the Shakertown Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland, but at his best, Gantry would be hard to beat in this spot.
The question is, will Gantry return to his best in this race? The seven-year-old gelding doesn’t possess as much early speed as some of his rivals, leaving him vulnerable to slow pace scenarios. However, the pace scenario of Saturday’s race is not expected to be slow—in fact, it could be very, very fast.
The expected participants in this pace battle are Sum of the Parts (3-1) and Heitai (7-2), the second and third choices on the morning line. Both horses have blazing early speed, coupled with the desire to use it from the start. Heitai has never been more than a head behind at the first or second call in any of his last ten races. Sum of the Parts has never been more than 1 ½ lengths back at the first or second call in any of his last ten races. Furthermore, both horses can run sub-:22-second opening quarter miles and sub-:45-second half miles with ease. Throw in the talented stakes-winning filly Snappy Girl (15-1)—who possesses almost as much early speed as Heitai and Sum of the Parts—as well as the very quick but slightly more tractable Berlino Di Tiger, and you have yourself the makings of an extremely fast early pace.
So which horses could take advantage of such a speed duel? Well, Gantry is one obvious benefactor. Another is Solar Charge (12-1), who unleashed an approximately :11.30-second final furlong when closing rapidly to finish second behind Heitai in the Need for Speed Stakes at Evangeline on May 24th. Granted, the pace of that race surely contributed to Solar Charge’s late rally (Heitai set fractions of :21.03 and :43.84), but it’s also worth noting that Heitai was loose on a clear lead that day, and with a much more head-to-head pace duel expected to unfold on Saturday, Solar Charge may find the front-runners a bit easier to reel in this time.
One horse with a difficult-to-interpret record is Lemon Drop Dream, winner of the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park two starts back. The four-year-old colt ran on turf four times early in his career, finishing third on three occasions and fourth once. He has improved substantially since being switched to dirt, but given his good form at six furlongs, the cutback to five furlongs and the possibility of a fast pace will surely help his chances of picking up the pieces at the finish.
So for the top spot, I’ll take Gantry, with respect to Solar Charge, Berlino Di Tiger, and—to an extent—Lemon Drop Dream to round out the exotics at respectable prices. It’s also difficult to ignore the raw speed of Heitai, who may very well hold on for a piece of the purse even if pressured early by the other front-runners.
Who do you like this weekend?