LAUREL -- At its start, yesterday's Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash was visited by misfortune. At its finish, tragedy struck. And in between, Housebuster put on a surge that carried him to a five-length victory.
At the break of the $300,000, six-furlong event at Laurel Race Course, Safely Kept was off to a slow start, costing the speedy mare perhaps five lengths and whatever chance she may have had.
Approximately 20 yards from the finish line, Bravely Bold was closest to Housebuster, poised to finish an easy second in what probably had been the best race of his life. But the 5-year-old gelding broke down suddenly, shattering his right ankle in a horrifying spill.
About 20 minutes after the race, after Bravely Bold had been fitted with a temporary cast and taken by van out of view of the 10,869 in attendance in sweltering weather, he was destroyed. Jockey Paul Toscano, who fell heavily when the gelding went down, was not injured.
After Bravely Bold broke down, Clever Trevor inherited second place; he finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Safely Kept. Sunny Blossom was fourth and Robyn Dancer a dull fifth.
None of the other horses was affected by the spill, which happened about five paths from the inner rail.
Housebuster's owner, Bob Levy, said the accident "takes away" from the victory. But he said the triumph nevertheless proves that Housebuster was deserving of his 1990 Eclipse Award as the nation's top sprinter.
Levy said Safely Kept's poor break "doesn't take anything away from what our horse did. I think she would have been right up there with the others in that fast pace. Instead of us going by two of them, we would have gone past three of them."
The victory and $180,000 winner's share makes Housebuster, a son of Mt. Livermore, 13-for-19 lifetime and racing's newest millionaire. His career earnings stand at $1,040,216.
Housebuster, the slight 2.40-1 favorite in the field of six, waited just behind Bravely Bold and Sunny Blossom in impressive fractions of :21 3/5 and :43 4/5. When the field turned into the stretch, jockey Craig Perret angled Housebuster out for the drive. The 4-year-old colt soon drew even with Bravely Bold, who had put away Sunny Blossom with a quarter-mile left. In the final sixteenth-mile, he went ahead comfortably.
"When I asked him to turn it on, that's what he did," Perret said.
Housebuster finished in 1 minute, 8 3/5 seconds, only two-fifths of a second off the Laurel mark set by Northern Wolf on June 16, 1990. Almost two months later, Northern Wolf established the Pimlico Race Course record for six furlongs in winning the inaugural De Francis Dash in 1:08.
While Bravely Bold (31-1), the longest shot in the race, and Sunny Blossom gunned to the front, Safely Kept was left standing in her No. 5 stall. "I was saying, 'Don't go!' " jockey Corey Black said afterward. "But I guess the man [starter Eric Blind] didn't hear me."
Perret, who has been the regular rider for both Safely Kept and Housebuster, said he was unaware that Safely Kept had broken slowly.
"But when the gate opened, I heard someone screaming," he said. "Someone was yelling, 'Oh no, oh no.' The next thing I know, Housebuster wanted to take the lead, but I eased him back and let the top two soften each other up. Then Housebuster was Housebuster."
The De Francis Dash represented a long-awaited confrontation between Housebuster and Safely Kept, who won the Eclipse as top sprinter in 1989. Perret said he chose Housebuster because of the years of allegiance that Levy and trainer Warren A. "Jimmy" Croll had shown him.
While Housebuster stalked Bravely Bold, Black tried to conserve as much speed and ground as possible. The mare rallied within 2 1/2 lengths of Bravely Bold at the quarter-pole, but late flourishes are not what had won 22 of 27 prior 27 starts.
Trainer Alan Goldberg said early last week that he did not want to run Safely Kept but had given in to the wishes of owner Barry Weisbord.
Whatever misgivings Goldberg has today pale to the heartbreak being felt by owner Arthur Klein and trainer Robert P. Lake. They were present to witness the disaster that befell Bravely Bold, a New York-based son of Danzig who had won $488,975 in an unspectacular but hardy career. For them, the De Francis Dash, touted as a dream race between champions, turned into a nightmare.
"You never like to see these things," Levy said.
NOTES: With her third-place finish, Safely Kept went over the $2 million earnings mark. Her share of $30,000 gives her a total of $2,029,395. . . . Gov. William Donald Schaefer made the winner's trophy presentation. Gov. Schaefer was a close friend of Frank De Francis, the former Laurel/Pimlico owner who died nearly 2 years ago. . . . The Levy-Croll-Perret combination is the same one that upset the first Pimlico Special in 1987 with Bet Twice. . . . Robyn Dancer, a California invader who had won his past 3 starts, was a strong third choice at 2.80-1, just behind Housebuster and Safely Kept (2.50-1). . . . With Pimlico inter-track, yesterday's total attendance came to 14,585. . . B BTC Jockey Mario Pino was not injured seriously yesterday when thrown from his mount, Ramayana, in the first race. Pino took off all remaining mounts. He was taken to Great Laurel-Beltsville Hospital complaining of back pain, but X-rays showed no fractures.