Celtic Innis carries dash of home hope to sprint

Horse Racing

November 25, 2006|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

Out-of-towners get the nod in the morning-line odds for today's Frank De Francis Dash, one of just five Grade I races for sprinters in the country. But Maryland trainer Tim Keefe said his horse Celtic Innis, owned and bred by Marylanders, has a chance to hit the board and bring glory to the home team.

"There's a lot of speed in this race," said Keefe, who trains the 4-year-old by Yarrow Brae for Allen and Audrey Murray. "My horse likes to sit behind some of that early speed, and if it's a real quick and fast race at the start, he has a chance to be there at the end.

"It's certainly going to be a tough race, but Allen and Audrey are Maryland people who live and breed horses in Maryland. We think we have a good chance, and it would be something special to win the De Francis Dash with a Maryland horse."

Three of the top five finishers in the Breeders' Cup Sprint are here: winner Thor's Echo, the morning-line favorite at 8-5, who is trying to tighten his grasp on the Eclipse Award for top sprinter; third-place finisher Nightmare Affair; and fifth-place runner Attila's Storm, who picks up Laurel Park's top jockey Anna "Rosie" Napravnik.

And then there is Diabolical, a multi-distance runner who last month won in his first sprint race, after spending the spring and summer running distances of a mile and more.

"We always kind of felt he'd ultimately be a better sprinter," said Diabolical's trainer, Steve Klesaris, whose horse is fourth choice at 10-1. "But certainly for a 3-year-old colt, the money is in running long. So we tried to stretch him as long as we could and discovered he's a threat at long, short and middle distances, which makes him a little unusual.

"Now, we're trying to turn him back, and at this time of the year, it's not usual to see 3-year-olds racing with older horses. This is a good race that pays good money. The field couldn't get stronger with those three Breeders' Cup horses, but I like to go up against quality horses like [Thor's Echo] who have just had the performance of his life."

The question for Klesaris, Keefe and every other trainer who is sending a horse against Thor's Echo is this: Can he turn in another exquisite performance?

"I think Thor's Echo is an exceptional horse," Klesaris said. "But people will look for a bounce. And I have to look at my own horse, who is fresh and talented. We'll take our best crack and we'll see."

Doug O'Neill, who trains Thor's Echo, the upset winner in the Breeders' Cup sprint Nov. 4, said it will take a big effort, but believes the possible result is worth the risk.

"We just thought he's such a cool horse to us and the Breeders' Cup was the pinnacle for all of us," he said. "We just thought for the horse, how cool it would be for him to go into the books as the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter. We just thought he had to do one more thing to really get the attention of the East Coast."

Thor's Echo, a son of Swiss Yodeler, has a pair of second-place finishes in Grade I sprints this year to go with his Breeders' Cup win, and O'Neill said if his horse can "do it one more time in the big race at Laurel," he deserves the sprinter Eclipse.

Thor's Echo will try to produce this "one more thing" off just three weeks' rest, which encourages the competition. But Keefe, the Maryland trainer, is cautious.

"Very, very nice horses who run good races tend to repeat," he said. "But we're a little bit fresher. We're on our home track. We haven't had to ship. We're not out to spoil anyone else's dream. We're just out to achieve our own. We're just all out there to win."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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