Dash has ingredients to make extra splash

`Caller', `Kona' hope to get best of Xtra Heat

Horse Racing

November 17, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

A million-dollar international race doesn't usually serve as practice for a $300,000 stakes in Maryland. But following a script that is part wisdom and part luck, the Breeders' Cup Sprint three weeks ago at Belmont Park turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the Frank. J. De Francis Memorial Dash today at Laurel Park.

In the Sprint, the astute California trainers Jim Chapman and Bruce Headley watched the little filly from Maryland, Xtra Heat, shoot into the lead and then, to their amazement, nearly hold on at the end. They learned their lessons.

Instead of being intimidated by Xtra Heat, winner of 17 of 21 races, they decided to take her on again - even though she's on her home track, even though she carries a significant weight advantage, even though they had to fly their horses cross-country to get here.

"I don't think any of us thought she'd be around at the sixteenth-pole," said Chapman, referring to a spot a sixteenth of a mile from the Sprint finish line, where they expected Xtra Heat to tire. "She's an exceptional filly.

"But to win this race she's going to have to run harder than she did in the Breeders' Cup. Caller One's going to be breathing down her neck, and Kona Gold's going to be right there, stalking."

Chapman replaced Corey Nakatani, who rode Caller One in the Sprint, with David Flores, hoping for a faster break and a more aggressive pursuit of Xtra Heat. Headley fired up Kona Gold with two sizzling three-furlong workouts. He's not scared of Xtra Heat.

"I want to try her again," Headley said. "I don't think my horse ran his race in the Breeders' Cup."

As the favorite in the six-furlong Breeders' Cup Sprint, Kona Gold lagged behind early and finished a fast-closing seventh. Caller One tracked Xtra Heat and finished third. And Xtra Heat, the 3-year-old undersized filly at odds of 17-1, dazzled the racing world by leading every step except the final few. She finished second, a half length behind Squirtle Squirt.

Squirtle Squirt bypassed the De Francis Dash, leaving Xtra Heat, Caller One, Kona Gold and Delaware Township, sixth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, to reunite on stage in Maryland. They're joined by three who skipped the Breeders' Cup: Say Florida Sandy, a veteran New York-bred, Boots On Sunday, a speedy Texas-bred, and Early Flyer, a California-based 3-year-old and early contender for the Kentucky Derby. This will be Early Flyer's first race since May, when he badly bruised a hind foot.

John Salzman, trainer and part owner of Xtra Heat, has heard all week how Chapman's Caller One and Headley's Kona Gold are going to increase the heat on his relentless filly.

"They're definitely nice horses," Salzman said. "But if my filly runs her race, they can do anything they want."

The question with Xtra Heat is: Who's going to ride her? Salzman yanked the mount from Jorge Chavez, who rode her flawlessly in the Breeders' Cup, after a dispute with Chavez's agent. Salzman declined to discuss the dispute publicly. He said he won't name a rider until the last minute.

At stake are not only the purse and prestige of winning a rare Grade I sprint, but also possible Eclipse awards. By virtue of his triumph in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and three wins and three seconds in six starts, Squirtle Squirt remains the leading contender for the Eclipse award as top sprinter.

But Xtra Heat could possibly overtake him in the Dash with her first victory against males. She could also enhance her chances for year-end honors in the 3-year-old filly category.

Kona Gold would gain support for a second straight Eclipse award for sprinting with a victory in the Dash. And Caller One, who captured the $2 million sprint stakes March 24 on the Dubai World Cup undercard, might garner votes if he coupled wins in the Dash and the Vernon O. Underwood Stakes Dec. 2 at Hollywood Park.

Because of the lure of winning an Eclipse, the De Francis Dash has attracted the strongest field since its inception in 1990. And because the Maryland Jockey Club switched the Dash from its traditional home in the summer to three weeks after the Breeders' Cup, top sprinters have the chance to slug it out late season in Maryland.

Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC, said it was a "no-brainer" to move the Dash from summer, when competition in New York was stiff, to the fall, when a Grade I sprint could claim racing's center stage. But even Raffetto acknowledged that having no clear-cut Eclipse winner was luck, the final ingredient in the making of a potentially great race.

De Francis Dash

What: Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash

Where: Laurel Park

When: Today

Purse: $300,000

Distance: Six furlongs

Post time: 4:06 p.m.

Status: One of three Grade I stakes in Maryland

At stake: Possible Eclipse Awards

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