LAUREL -- The late Frank De Francis had a knack for knowing what turned racing fans on. Although he was a self-styled king of promotion, De Francis knew that no amount of promotion could top the legitimacy of a race among top-class horses.
So when Safely Kept and Housebuster meet for the first time in today's second Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Race Course, the ideals of De Francis, who died nearly two years ago, will be uppermost in the mind of his son, Joe De Francis.
"The thing my dad never forgot," said De Francis, who has assumed the legacy of his father as controlling owner and president of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, "was that he was selling horse racing. No matter how beautiful a package you put it in, the product was the most important part. He would have been thrilled with this race."
Racing fans have been awaiting a match between Housebuster, the Eclipse sprint champion of 1990, and Safely Kept, the 1989 champion, ever since Housebuster began a torrid streak early last year. It finally comes in the $300,000, six-furlong De Francis Dash.
Safely Kept finished second to long shot Dancing Spree in the 1989 Breeders' Cup Sprint but earned only a tepid nod from Eclipse Award voters, largely because her glittery 8-for-9 record had been compiled mostly against fillies and mares and because no male sprinter had distinguished himself.
Then Housebuster came along in the spring of 1990, a 3-year-old that trainer Warren "Jimmy" Croll said was a tremendous talent but not suited to the grueling Triple Crown races. Kept strictly in races of a mile and under, Housebuster won nine of 11 starts last year, one of his losses coming by a neck to the older Criminal Type, the other coming when he suffered a leg injury in the Vosburgh Stakes.
The injury kept him from a match with Safely Kept in the Breeders' Cup, which Safely Kept won when Dayjur jumped a shadow in late stretch. So the clash has been delayed nearly eight months, with Laurel the beneficiary.
Barry Weisbord, owner of Safely Kept, said yesterday that he still doesn't think Housebuster should have gotten the Eclipse last year, that Safely Kept was more deserving.
"We would have liked to meet on the track," he said. "There's a lot of subjectivity in the Eclipse voting.
"If she doesn't run her race [today], I'll be disappointed. Whatever happens, this came together as a great
In 1991, Safely Kept has maintained her sharpness, winning three races easily, all against her own sex. And although Housebuster has been disappointing in winning just once in four starts this year -- his last effort, an eighth-place finish in the Metropolitan Mile, was especially weak -- Croll insists the colt is training well.
His final blowout for the race, a one-minute workout at Monmouth Park Monday, was "just what we wanted," Croll said. "He went well and came back good."
Craig Perret, who has been the regular jockey for both stars, will ride Housebuster, while Corey Black picks up the mount on Safely Kept.
Perret has ridden many good horses for Croll and Housebuster's owner, Robert Levy, including Bet Twice, winner of the 1987 Belmont Stakes. Black, a former Southern California regular who has since moved his tack to New York, has ridden Safely Kept just once, that her 1991 debut.
The six-horse De Francis field is completed by Robyn Dancer, Clever Trevor, Sunny Blossom and Bravely Bold.
The race can be seen live on ABC's "Wide World of Sports." Post time is scheduled for 4:42, with the New England Classic to follow 26 minutes later.
NOTES: Today's first race goes off at 12:30, a half-hour earlier than usual. . . . Safely Kept is scheduled to be transported from Monmouth early this morning. Housebuster arrived from Monmouth yesterday at 3:30 p.m. . . . With two winners yesterday, Mike Luzzi has edged away to a 14-12 lead over Edgar Prado atop the Laurel jockey standings. . . . Owner Katherine Willson and her husband, Art, who is a trainer, have been suspended 30 days each for misappropriating approximately $40,000 in funds from the horsemen's account.