Dash is step up in class

Nimble's 5 straight guarantee nothing in today's De Francis

July 17, 1999|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Three weeks ago, Nimble was led into the Laurel Park winner's circle after an impressive race in which he stumbled out of the gate, drifted out in the lane and still romped to victory in the William Furey Memorial Stakes.

That was the fifth consecutive triumph for the 7-year-old former claimer, who equaled the seven-furlong track record with a time of 1: 21 2/5. But today he ascends into the fastest company he has ever faced.

The son of Afleet has never hooked up with the likes of Yes It's True and Good and Tough, two rugged customers who will attract the majority of the bettors' attention in the Grade 1, $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash.

Another graded-stakes winner, Mint, is also in the six-horse field that will severely test Nimble's mettle. But don't count him out.

"If he runs third, we'd be more than tickled," said Nimble's trainer, Scott Lake, from his base at Philadelphia Park. "Any higher and we'd be ecstatic. He's really turned the corner and is running at the top of his game. We're keeping our fingers crossed."

Nimble will break from the rail in the 10th renewal of the upgraded De Francis, in which Kelly Kip set a six-furlong stakes record last year in winning in 1: 08 2/5.

"We're not really thrilled about the one hole," said Lake. "He gets antsier the longer he stays in the gate and, in two starts, he stumbled away from there. That's been a little bit of a problem."

The compactness of the field was the determining factor for keeping Nimble in the race, which rewards the winner with $180,000.

"He's lost all his allowance conditions, so we didn't see a whole lot of opportunities left," continued Lake. "You don't get a whole lot of chances to run in a Grade I with a six-horse field. We beat Storm Punch [in May] and Wise Dusty may be a cut below.

"So, if we get lucky enough to run third, we'll get a nice return and make more than we did winning that stake [a $50,000 race] there. Even if we run fifth, we cover expenses."

Owned by E&G Stable, Nimble has earned $348,622 and has finished in the top three in 40 of 55 career starts. He has captured seven of eight starts this year, finishing fifth while experiencing traffic trouble in the Mr. Nickerson Handicap in April.

D. Wayne Lukas-trained Yes It's True is a 3-year-old apparently heading for an Eclipse Award as the nation's top sprinter.

He whipped older horses on Preakness Day when he captured the intruder-marred, Grade III, $200,000 Maryland Breeders' Cup at Pimlico and has lost only once since February, finishing fourth to Patience Game in the Kentucky Derby Trial.

Good and Tough has won four of his last five, the only loss coming to Artax's record-setting performance in the Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct May 2. Two who beat him that day, Artax and Affirmed Success, are being rested after being nominated for the De Francis.

Mint has been struggling, with no victories this year and three beatings from Good and Tough. Sluggish starts have been a problem for a colt who became a graded winner at Saratoga last summer in a dead heat with Secret Firm.

Three of the nine winners of previous De Francis Dashes have proceeded to Eclipse-winning status: Housebuster (1991), Cherokee Run (1994) and Smoke Glacken (1997).

A stakes or track record is possible because Laurel's dirt surface has been yielding lightning-like times during recent programs. The track has been hard and fast in the absence of any significant rainfall this summer.

Post time for the De Francis (ESPN) is 4: 52 p.m. The undercard includes three other stakes, including the $75,000 Montpelier at six furlongs.

Note: Apprentice jockey Jose Benitez returned to riding yesterday after being involved in a nasty spill on Thursday's card. The other rider in the accident, Travis Dunkelberger, took off his mounts after experiencing soreness.

De Francis Dash

When: Today

Where: Laurel Park

Post time: 4: 52 p.m.

TV: ESPN2, 4: 30

Purse: $300,000

Grade: I

Distance: Six furlongs

Record: 1 minute, 8 2/5 seconds (Kelly Kip, 1998)

Favorite: Yes It's True

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