11/13/2014 2:39PM

Hovdey: De Francis Dash, once a Grade 1, one of few late-season prizes


Anyone who thought this year’s quality racing with any kind of national impact ended the afternoon of Nov. 1 had his world rocked Wednesday with the announcement that California Chrome would be running in the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar on Nov. 29, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Yes, the Hollywood Derby is a grass race. And yes, it’s worth only $300,000, a pittance when one realizes that California Chrome has run in six straight events worth a million or more. But the Chrome camp has a healthy colt ready to run somewhere, and the only other alternatives were Kentucky or Japan, which to Art Sherman’s way of thinking were the same as no choice at all.

“He’s not a horse that’s a high climber,” the trainer said, referring to California Chrome’s efficient stride. “He keeps his feet low when he runs, and the grass courses we run on here are almost like a putting green. I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself trying this, but if it works, that gives us a lot of options next season. I’m looking forward to it.”

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Sherman noted that California Chrome would van south from Los Alamitos and work on the Del Mar grass Nov. 23. If that goes well, the trainer said, California Chrome will remain at Del Mar the week leading up to the Hollywood Derby.

The last Kentucky Derby winner to expand his horizons to turf racing was Big Brown, who won what turned out to be the final start of his career in a $500,000 grass race at Monmouth Park. Ferdinand gave the grass a try but didn’t like it, much to the chagrin of his sire, Nijinsky, while Gato del Sol managed to hit the board once in the Arlington Million. Secretariat was a Triple Crown winner and a grass champion, so that pretty much ends the debate on Derby winners who went both ways.

Normally, mid- to late-November racing at the top of the sport suffers from its proximity to the dates of the Breeders’ Cup, as well as from an attention-deficit disorder that deflates interest in major horse racing once the Breeders’ Cup results are in. It requires a special set of circumstances for races such as the Cigar Mile, Remsen Stakes, Clark Handicap, Hollywood Derby, or Matriarch to make a difference in the landscape of championships, even though they remain compelling as standalone events.

For many years, Laurel Park (formerly Laurel Race Course) was the center of a Breeders’ Cup-like spotlight with its presentation of the unique Washington, D.C. International Stakes, traditionally run on Veterans Day. These days, internationally promoted turf races are a dime a dozen, but it was the D.C. International that got the ball rolling in 1952 and pretty much had the U.S. market to itself until New York and California got into the act of hustling foreign runners in the 1970s.

The D.C. International has been gone 20 years now, a victim of the Breeders’ Cup Turf. (Paradise Creek won the final running in 1994.) Still, there is good reason to pay attention to Maryland racing in November, with Saturday’s 23rd running of the $350.000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash.

The De Francis emerged in 1990, one year after the death of Maryland racing giant Frank De Francis, who with his partners, Tom and Bob Manfuso, shepherded a rejuvenation of the state’s racing fortunes as owners of both Laurel and Pimlico. De Francis was 62 when he died, but his name has lived on in what became a major six-furlong sprint event practically overnight.

For the first half of its life, the De Francis was a summer stop that attracted horses such as Housebuster, Safely Kept, Cherokee Run, Affirmed Success, Lite the Fuse, Kelly Kip, and Smoke Glacken. They could win anywhere at the highest levels.

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In 2001, the De Francis was uprooted from its summer home at Laurel and replanted a few weeks after the Breeders’ Cup. In part, the move was intended to take advantage of any confusion over the identity of the season’s sprint champ. In reality, it was, well, November, and in 11 De Francis fall runnings since 2001, the outcome has impacted the male sprint championship only once – in 2006, when Thor’s Echo backed up his BC Sprint victory at Churchill Downs three weeks later, beating Diabolical by three-quarters of a length at Laurel.

Maryland racing’s economic turmoil under the stewardship of Magna Entertainment forced the cancellation of the De Francis in 2008 and 2010. Along the way, the race went from a Grade 1 event to a Grade 2, but now, it’s a Grade Zip, with nothing to run for except $350,000 and the pride of winning a race named for De Francis.

If the six-furlong De Francis is going to climb back into the company of graded stakes, it will need graded stakes winners to participate (that’s the bait-and-switch scam still being perpetrated by the Graded Stakes Committee). Saturday’s running features graded stakes winners Dads Caps, Happy My Way, Favorite Tale, Bern Identity, La Verdad, and Mico Margarita.

All that helps, but it will be old Ben’s Cat, a Maryland institution looking for his 28th win in his 45th start for King Leatherbury, who could make this a memorable running of the De Francis Memorial Dash.