10/24/2009 9:14AM

De Francis Dash

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After a one-year hiatus, the Grade 1 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash will be contested this afternoon at Laurel Park.  Once a stepping-stone for champion sprinters Housebuster (118 Beyer in 1991, beating Safely Kept), Cherokee Run (114 Beyer in 1994), Smoke Glacken (110 Beyer in 1997), and Thor's Echo (112 Beyer in 2006), the De Francis is now a potential victim of the calendar as well as Maryland's reluctance to infuse daily purses with slot revenue.  Carded two weeks before the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, the De Francis remains a Grade 1 race in name only as the creme de la creme of the division opt to run for lots more money, more prestige, and a possible year-end championship at the Breeders' Cup.  

It's sad to see the race lose some of its luster, but perhaps the six-furlong dash can be best-utilized as a prep race for the Cigar Mile, a Grade 1 race around one turn at Aqueduct post-Breeders' Cup.  A move to seven furlongs in the future might attract "tweeners" from the Breeders' Cup (horses that find six furlongs too sharp, and a mile too taxing) as well as aiding "preppers" for the Cigar Mile by only giving them a one-furlong stretchout at Aqueduct.  In an idealistic world, the folks at NYRA could help this race out by partnering with the Maryland Jockey Club in offering a bonus to the horse that sweeps the De Francis and Cigar.  We all know that is an unrealistic hope.

This year's De Francis (Beyer par - 112.06) features Vineyard Haven, a horse that's worn many hats despite only having been to the post six times.  First, he was the precocious dazzler that caught the eye of Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel after an impressive debut score at Calder.  Then, he emerged as a potential Triple Crown hopeful after winning the Hopeful at Saratoga, and Champagne at Belmont.  Then, he was the high-priced flop as he floundered under the desert sun of Dubai after being purchased by Godolphin for a price reported to be in the $10 million range.  Now, he's the comeback kid after finishing first in a gut-busting renewal of the King's Bishop at the Spa, only to be disqualified for impeding Capt. Candyman Can in the waning strides. 
While Vineyard Haven certainly looks imposing as the probable betting favorite, there are some obstacles in his path.  He'll face older horses for the first time in his career, and must break from the inside in a race that features other rivals that will battle for Vineyard Haven's customary spot at the head of affairs.  He's most definitely the horse to beat, and perhaps the speed of the speed, but he may be a bit of an underlay. 

I'll take a chance with Ravalo, a veteran that has won 13 of 27 lifetime starts, and has matured from a speed-crazy youngster into a more professional stalker.  While it could be argued that his favorite surface is at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, Ravalo did win a minor stakes race at Belmont in nice fashion last time out, and has the ability to sit just off the pace for high-percentage rider Jeremy Rose.  He's 8-1 on the morning line, but I think his fair odds are about half that.

There are some other interesting horses in the field.  Roaring Lion may be breathing down Vineyard Haven's throat down the backstretch, and the Maryland Million Sprint champion has been perfect since returning from a year-plus layoff in July.  Fleet Valid has won four in a row after being claimed for $14,000 by trainer Scott Volk, and enters this off a pair of stakes wins at Monmouth Park.  True Quality won the Grade 2 General George Handicap at Laurel in February, but myriad injuries have relegated him to the sidelines for much of the year.  Peace Chant returned from a shoulder injury to run a better-than-it-looks tenth in the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga.  Sacred Journey has won three in a row for Tony Dutrow, and the $325,000 yearling-turned-$30,000 claimer seems back on his best game.  Saratoga Russell once showed immense promise earlier in his career.  And then, there's Ah Day, arguably the patriarch of Mid-Atlantic sprinters, a runner that has suffered from numerous injuries, but always seems to return none the worse for wear.  He goes turf-to-dirt, and always has a puncher's chance. 

As always, the DeFrancis seems to come up a salty race.

More importantly, who do you like this weekend?  I want to know.

Back Monday with weekend Beyers, and tons of questions, comments, and pp requests.

Take care,

Dan