Top Md. race entices few entrants

Six horses to challenge in Grade I De Francis Dash

July 15, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash earned Grade I status this year, meaning that for the first time it officially ranks among the country's top races.

However, when the field enters the starting gate Saturday at Laurel Park, no more than six horses will dash for their share of the $300,000 purse and the prestige of winning a Grade I stakes.

The half-dozen horses that were entered yesterday disappointed Laurel Park racing officials, who beamed last winter when the De Francis Dash became only the third race in Maryland rated Grade I (the others are the Preakness and Pimlico Special).

But in this day and age of fragile horses and non-stop racing, even Grade I stakes sometimes lack full, exceptional fields. Just 18 days ago in California, a mere four horses raced for $1 million in one of the nation's premier races, the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup.

" `Best' by definition means fewer," said Lenny Hale, Laurel Park's vice president of racing.

Hale serves on the American Graded Stakes Committee, which meets every December to rank the coming year's top stakes. Eighteen owners, breeders and racing officials serve on the committee.

They base their rankings on the quality of fields in a race over the past five years. They judge quality by how horses in the race performed in other graded stakes.

Applying an elaborate point system, they rate the stakes as Grade I, Grade II or Grade III, or they don't rate it at all. Last year, the committee graded 472 stakes (95 Grade I, 154 Grade II, 223 Grade III).

Of those 472 stakes, 19 are in Maryland. The most are in California (132) and New York (128), followed by Florida (59) and Kentucky (56).

The system of grading stakes in this country began in 1973 as an aid to people buying and selling horses. Before, if you looked at a horse's record in a sales catalog, you wouldn't necessarily know the quality of races it had won.

"Then it evolved into a marketing tool for racetracks, for stallion owners and for people selling foals," Hale said. "Now with the Breeders' Cup, it's taken on a whole life of its own."

The first eight entrants in the elite Breeders' Cup races each fall get in by points earned in graded stakes. The next six are selected by a panel.

Grades can change. The De Francis Dash was not graded in its first two runnings, 1990 and 1991. Because it attracted strong fields, it received a Grade II in 1992 and retained that until this year.

"It was clearly the best six-furlong race in the country with the exception of the Breeders' Cup Sprint," Hale said. "It's so much better than the other Grade II's that it had no place to go except to Grade I."

Winning a Grade I increases a horse's value and can ensure a lucrative breeding career. But even that strong lure doesn't guarantee a full starting gate. But injuries and over-taxed horses pervade the sport no matter the level.

Reraise, last year's Eclipse-award winning sprinter, would probably have been favored in the De Francis Dash, but he injured a tendon last month galloping at Hollywood Park. The trainers of Artax and Affirmed Success, both Grade I winners, decided to rest their horses after recent grueling races.

That left the De Francis Dash with two top-notch sprinters, Yes It's True and Good and Tough. Yes It's True is the leading contender for this year's Eclipse award as the nation's outstanding sprinter.

He could join the stellar roster of the three De Francis Dash winners who ended the year as Eclipse-award winners: Housebuster in 1991, Cherokee Run in 1994 and Smoke Glacken in 1997.

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