De Francis is Saturday; Laurel opens today
Nine sprinters, including local star Ben's Cat, have been entered in Saturday's 22nd running of the $350,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park. The track's fall meeting begins today and ends Dec. 31, with racing Wednesdays through Saturdays, holidays excluded. The meet includes 31 stakes races, worth more than $3.3 million. Saturday's 11-race Fall Festival of Racing card will begin at 1:10 p.m. The De Francis Dash is an elite 6-furlong sprint that has produced four Eclipse Award champion sprinter winners: Housebuster (1991), Cherokee Run (1994), Smoke Glacken (1997) and Thor's Echo (2006). The festival also features five open stakes races on the turf: the Laurel Futurity for 2-year-olds, the Selima Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, the 6-furlong Laurel Dash, the Lady Baltimore Stakes for fillies and mares, the 11/2-mile Laurel Turf Cup, plus the Jameela Stakes for Maryland-breds. Owner-trainer King Leatherbury cross-entered Ben's Cat, one of the top turf sprinters in the country, in the De Francis Dash and the $100,000 Laurel Dash, a race he won two years ago. The 7-year-old is 8-for-12 on the dirt, including three stakes scores, though 13 of his past 14 starts have been on the grass. The son of Parker's Storm Cat has 14 turf stakes wins on his resume. "This has been on our radar since last year when the winner didn't run any faster than Ben's Cat has on the dirt," Leatherbury said. "Once we found out it was a full field on the turf, we decided to cross-enter and will handicap the De Francis and have a choice. There doesn't appear to be any super horses in the race. Early in his career he ran some big races on the dirt but we decided to keep him on the turf and dodge some of the really top horses on the main track. We can make more money by finishing second in the De Francis than winning the other one, which is a good situation to be in. It will be fun to handicap and see where we end up running." Maryland Jockey Club handicapper Keith Feustle has made Ben's Cat the 9-2 second choice on the morning line. Sage Valley is the 9-5 favorite. The son of Discreet Cat has a pair of graded victories this year, visiting the winners' circle in the Maryland Sprint Handicap at Pimlico in May and the James Marvin at Saratoga in July. In his last start, the Rudy Rodriguez trainee was fifth in the Forego (G1). "We are bringing him back a little quickly but he seemed to come out of that race pretty good," Rodriguez said. "I think he should be close to the lead and if he doesn't break well we will be close. It would be nice if he could run as big as he did on Preakness day. He is a very nice looking, well-bred horse. We are having fun with him and hope that continues." Cornelio Velasquez will ride Sage Valley.