11/23/2006 1:00AM

Looking for clean shot at BC Sprint champ

Michael J. Marten/HorsePhotos
Thor's Echo, winning the Sprint, faces Attila's Storm and Nightmare Affair in the De Francis.

The De Francis highlights a Fall Festival of Racing card that features six other stakes worth at least $100,000 and total purses of $1,067,000. The card represents the fourth-biggest day on Maryland's racing calendar, behind the Preakness, Pimlico Special, and Maryland Million programs.

Attila's Storm, based in New York with trainer Richard Schosberg, ran well to finish fifth in the BC Sprint, especially considering he had to break from post 13 and nearly had a shoe torn off his foot when he clipped heels with a rival. His left hind shoe was bent downward a half-inch, and while it didn't come off, it was dislodged.

"I think we could've been second," said Schosberg. "We had trouble with regards to the post position and the fact Pomeroy clipped heels with him and tore that shoe up."

Attila's Storm drew more favorably for the Dash, in post 7, two slots inside of Thor's Echo, the 8-5 favorite on track oddsmaker Frank Carulli's morning line. Third in the Grade 1 Vosburgh in October and second in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes last January, Attila's Storm could be poised to move forward in the third start of his current form cycle, even though he's coming back on relatively short rest.

"You have few opportunities for Grade 1 races at six and seven furlongs," Schosberg said. "Everybody that's coming out of the Breeders' Cup wishes it was a week later, but it isn't so we're all hoping our horses have good trips and put in good performances."

Manny Azpurua, the Calder-based trainer of Nightmare Affair, said he is optimistic that Nightmare Affair can improve upon his third-place finish in the BC Sprint, a race in which he was caught in traffic on the backstretch.

"He is coming out of the last race well and is doing everything right," Azpurua said. "If my horse gets the right trip he's going to be right there."

Nightmare Affair's best performance this year came when he rallied from eighth to capture the Grade 2 Smile Sprint Handicap at Calder. He won three other minor sprint stakes, two at his home track and one at Tampa Bay Downs.

Attila's Storm and Nightmare Affair will attempt to play the role of spoiler against Thor's Echo, who needs to win the Dash to impress enough voters to earn an Eclipse as champion sprinter. Trainer Doug O'Neill admitted that Thor's Echo, who came into the BC Sprint 0 for 5 for the year, is unlikely to be awarded the Eclipse based solely on his 15-1 upset at Churchill Downs.

"We just thought he had to do one more thing to really get the attention of the East Coast," said O'Neill, whose stable is based in Southern California. "We don't get a vote, but if he were to win here we sure would be fired up and think we have a really, really good chance to have the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter, which would cap off the year."

In races more than six months apart, Thor's Echo finished second in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen and the Grade 1 Ancient Title.

"We were so proud of him after the Dubai race that if he never did anything else again he was our champion," said O'Neill, who saddled Avanzado to a sixth-place finish in the 2002 Dash. "But he jumped up and ran huge in the Ancient Title and again in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. The horse deserves those kind of honors if we were to do it one more time in the big race at Laurel."

A win by any of the other six runners in the Dash would be a major surprise. The most intriguing upset candidate is Diabolical, a 3-year-old who has primarily been racing around two turns on both dirt and turf. Trainer Steve Klesaris put him back in a dirt sprint last time out, and Diabolical responded with a 2 1/2-length win and a career-best 111 Beyer Speed Figure in the Gallant Bob Handicap at Philadelphia Park.

- additional reporting by David Grening