Vanderbilt preview: Like Lightning

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Thor’s Echo peered from his stall at the stakes barn and looked as interested as a Yankees fan listening to Terry Francona talk about his two World Series rings. The 2006 champion sprinter had descended upon the most famous racetrack in the world to run in today’s Grade II Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap . . . big deal.

The California-bred is used to new surroundings, new racetracks and new obstacles. With a resume that includes close to $2.5 million in earnings and the travel itinerary of an oil executive, Thor’s Echo just keeps boarding the plane.

Florida, California, Dubai, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Dubai again, then a return to his California home. He jetted from Hollywood to Belmont for the True North June 7, then jetted back west to prep for the $250,000 Vanderbilt. Despite the miles, the 6-year-old has flourished more often than not, and rates as a major contender in the 6-furlong stakes.

Carlos Pena, foreman for trainer Doug O’Neill’s Southern California string, accompanied the gelding on the trip and didn’t see a hair out of place.

“This horse has been to a lot of different places and he ships in great every time. He’s kind of a veteran of all this by now. Even when he went to Dubai and back it was no big thing. He knows what he’s doing,” Pena said. “I’ve been with Doug and the horse for a long time – at Del Mar and Hollywood Park and at Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup in 2006 – and the horse is always a pleasure. He doesn’t let anything bother him.”

Up to this point Dubai has been the only real blip on the radar. Zabeel Racing International purchased Thor’s Echo’s after back-to-back wins in Grade I stakes in November 2006 – the Breeder’s Cup Sprint and De Francis Dash. Sent to trainer Seemar Satish in Dubai, the plan was to point for the $2 million Golden Shaheen in March 2008. They got there, but things hardly went accordingly. Thor’s Echo prepped in the Group III Mahab Al Shimaal and ran sixth, the same spot he finished 30 days later in the Group I Shaheen.

On to Plan B. Back to California. Back to O’Neill.

Zabeel booked Thor’s Echo a return flight in April 2007 and after 14 months off he resurfaced in the Grade II True North on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Racing up close to a quick pace, he tired late to finish fourth, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths by divisional leader Benny The Bull. Thor’s Echo drew the rail in the Vanderbilt and reunites with Corey Nakatani, who was aboard for the late-season stakes scores in 2006.

Pena sees little change in the horse that seems to be sitting on a peak performance.

“So far, so good. He looks sharp and he’s ready to run. Just a great horse to be around and takes everything in stride,” Pena said. “He got in late on Tuesday and he galloped over the track Wednesday and Thursday. Today he just jogged and tomorrow he’ll run. It looked like he handled the track OK but I just hope it doesn’t rain. It’s going to be a tough race but he just goes out and runs his race, so tomorrow shouldn’t be any different.”

And it will be a tough race. After all, for all his experience, Thor’s Echo is fifth choice in the morning line.

Though not as seasoned Thor’s Echo, Black Seventeen is another live West Coaster. Shipping in from California for Brian Koriner, the 4-year-old son of Is It True won the Grade II Carry Back Stakes at Calder in July 2007, his last start of the year. Koriner opted to give his star a freshening and Black Seventeen returned in the Oakland Stakes at Golden Gate Fields June 14, setting a blistering half-mile under pressure in 44 1/5 seconds before tiring to run second. Koriner makes his first trip to Saratoga and his front-running colt rates as the one to catch.

“It’s exciting and nice to finally be here at Saratoga,” Koriner said. “The horse shipped in well and we’ll see if California speed can be transferred to New York. He got a bit tired in his comeback race but he got something out of it and he’ll be a little sharper this time.”

Black Seventeen has run a half-mile in 44 and change in his last three starts, and Koriner isn’t about to tell jockey Aaron Gryder to change tactics in the Vanderbilt.

“We’re going to send him away from there and make them come and catch us,” Koriner said. “We didn’t come all this way to get beat at our own game.”

That plan could prove a roadblock for Roddy Valente’s undefeated homebred Bustin Stones, who has never been behind a horse at any pace call in his six lifetime starts. His horse is the morning-line favorite, and the locally based and tremendously popular Valente could run for public office if Bustin Stones takes the Vanderbilt.

Trained by Bruce Levine, the 4-year-old enters off the biggest win of his career, a game half-length score in the Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct April 5. Beset by knee problems throughout his career, the Empire-bred son of City Zip has had more starts and stops than a New York cab on a rainy day.

Bustin Stones won his first three starts last spring, then was forced to the sidelines by a knee injury. After an aborted comeback he finally returned in January, winning a minor state-bred stakes at Aqueduct, then ventured to Laurel to take down open company the Grade II General George Feb. 18. A determined gate-to-wire victory in the Carter was followed by another brief setback but Levine regrouped and circled the Vanderbilt. With Black Seventeen signed on, he knows things won’t be easy up front.

“That’s the thing, there’s some serious speed in there and we’re part of it for sure. But he keeps passing every test we’ve given him so far and he’s proven himself to be a pretty special and pretty serious horse,” Levine said. “He got sick on me in May after the Carter and we had to back off on him just a hair, but he’s coming in good and has been training very well since then. It hasn’t been too frustrating because he hasn’t missed a beat since he got sick; he’s been breezing every six days or a week and he’s ready to go,” Levine said.

First Defence ran the race of his life, albeit a losing one, at the Spa last season when he stuck a head in front of Hard Spun in deep stretch in the Grade I King’s Bishop before settling for second. Juddmonte Farm’s homebred has been Richie Sexton since, either knocking it out of the park or fanning the air.

Bobby Frankel elected to give First Defence an extended vacation after a seventh in the Grade I Vosburgh last October, and brought him back May 3 to win an allowance on the Kentucky Derby undercard. A disappointing fifth in the Grade I Met Mile sent First Defence to the turf, and the 4-year-old responded with a gritty head victory in the Grade III Jaipur at Belmont. With an inside draw in the Vanderbilt jockey Javier Castellano may be forced to send his mount to the lead or risk losing position.

Eighth in the Vanderbilt to close his 2007 campaign, Abraaj has been a new horse this year for Kiaran McLaughlin. Now 6, the Shadwell Stable charge won an allowance by 6 lengths before finishing a game third in the True North. Abraaj could benefit the most from the anticipated quick splits in the Vanderbilt. Alan Garcia has the call.

Sammarco (Channing Hill to ride) enters off a gate-to-wire maiden score at Belmont for Mike Hushion and could be in the mix early. E Z Warrior (Kent Desormeaux) makes his first start in Bill Mott’s care since running 13th in the Grade I Malibu over Santa Anita’s synthetic surface  in December for trainer Bob Baffert.