ST. PETERSBURG — They will walk in unison to the starting box tonight and wait for it to open. For the greyhounds in the fifth annual $50,000 Fall Sprint championship, that will be one of the few similarities.
Derby Lane's first stakes race of the season blends speedsters with closers, sprinters with dual-distance dogs, and veterans with pups. Together, the eight finalists have 564 starts and 192 victories. None has won a stakes with a purse this high ($22,000 to the winner). And none will be concerned with defending champion Flying Coal City, the industry's 2010 Triple Crown winner who was retired from racing Wednesday after the McAllister kennel standout failed to qualify for the 550-yard finale, track spokeswoman Vera Rasnake said.
The field in the Fall Sprint (Race 10, 10:11 p.m.) from the rail: Sand Cloud (D'Arcy kennel), Aerial Battle (Capabal), Ahk Colormegone (Abernathy), Storm Rush (Hambleton), Jw Titleist (Capabal), Uss Gazillionair (Lester Raines), Craigie I Am Jak (Campbell) and Manicotti Manny (Hambleton).
"I think every one of them can win," Rasnake said. "That's what is exciting about the way they drew (posts). Dog owners are coming to town (from as far as Kansas and Texas)."
Aerial Battle (Matinee Idol), Storm Rush (St. Petersburg Derby) and Uss Gazillionair (Fall Juvenile) have won stakes before. Aerial Battle turned 4 in September and is the event's senior greyhound. He is going for his 70th victory in his 140th start. Aerial Battle has overcome two injuries — including a career-threatening ankle stopper-bone issue — and is one of the early speed dogs with Ahk Colormegone, Manicotti Manny and Sand Cloud. Aerial Battle is 6-for-6 at making stakes finals and is half-brother to Jw Titleist, the meet wins leader. Abernathy has been the hottest kennel in recent stakes, winning three of the previous seven at Derby Lane.
This is the fifth stakes finale for Uss Gazillionair, who can extend Lester Raines' streak of having a stakes winner at St. Petersburg to seven consecutive meets. Storm Rush comes from well off the pace as does Craigie I Am Jak, the youngest qualifier at 21 months old. In 10 lifetime wins, Craigie I Am Jak has beaten only one dog out of the starting box. He led qualifiers with 56 points and, with a win, would give Campbell its first stakes victory at Derby Lane since Jr's Flashy won the 2005 T.L. Weaver Memorial.
HORSES: Belmont Park will host six of the 13 graded races on today's national scene. The track in Elmont, N.Y., has five Grade I races (Jockey Club Gold Cup, Joe Hirsch Turf, Flower Bowl, Beldame and Vosburgh) and a Grade II (Kelso). … Tampa Bay Downs trainer Anthony Pecoraro got his 1,000th win Sept. 24 when I'm Steppin' It Up won the Grade III Kent Stakes at Delaware Park in Wilmington.