11/13/2003 1:00AM

Persistence puts A Huevo in Dash


Mark Hopkins was ready to give up. After A Huevo developed another in a long line of physical problems last year, Hopkins was resigned that he would never find out if the gelding was as good as he thought when he bought him in the summer of 1999.

But, last year, when Michael Dickinson offered to train A Huevo for free, Hopkins naturally agreed to let Dickinson try to bring the horse back. On Saturday, in the Grade 1, $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park, Hopkins will find out if it was all worth it.

On paper, the 7-year-old A Huevo looks like a longshot against the seasoned sprinter Shake You Down in the six-furlong De Francis. But it's hard not to root for A Huevo, who, in addition to enduring a series of injuries, was also the subject of a controversial disqualification in the 1999 West Virginia Breeders Classic.

The story begins in the summer of 1999 after A Huevo won an allowance race at Delaware Park, running six furlongs in 1:09.60. Hopkins called Dickinson's assistant, Joan Wakefield, and said, "There's a horse at Delaware you have to look at."

Wakefield was already aware of the horse. So were many others. A Huevo, who stands more than 17 hands tall, had drawn interest from several horsemen, who all turned him down due to a tendon issue. Even Dickinson was leery of buying the gelding.

"He said it's going to take a guy with a lot of [guts] or a guy who's crazy to buy this horse," Hopkins said. "I said, 'I'm a coward at heart, but I qualify for the second part.' "

A month after Hopkins bought him, A Huevo romped to a second-level allowance win at Delaware.

"He was under wraps all the way around," Hopkins said.

A West Virginia-bred, A Huevo was a natural for the West Virginia Breeders Classic at Charles Town. On Oct. 10, 1999, in the slop, A Huevo won the race by 7 3/4 lengths in a track-record time of 1:50.

However, a postrace urine test revealed the presence of a large quantity of the banned substance clenbuterol in A Huevo's system. Surprisingly, there was no clenbuterol in A Huevo's blood. Though Dickinson and Hopkins fought the disqualification for almost a year, the result stood. But, Dickinson was never given days.

Hopkins and Dickinson firmly believe somebody altered the test.

"There can be no other explanation," Hopkins said.

Adding injury to insult, A Huevo came out of the race with bone chips in all four knees. It was the start of a series of problems that kept the horse away from the races for four years.

Last year, after A Huevo recovered from a suspensory problem, Hopkins was present at Dickinson's Tapeta Farm to watch the gelding work.

"He went bad right in front of me," Hopkins said. "I said, 'That's it, let's call it a day.' He said, 'I'll train him for nothing and take a shot he comes back in the spring.' "

A Huevo returned to the races on Aug. 9 in a stakes at Mountaineer. Despite the 46-month layoff, A Huevo was made the 2-1 favorite. He finished seventh.

"When he got there, he hadn't been to the races in four years," Wakefield said. "He completely freaked out and he flipped over three times in the paddock. We don't know where it came from. We honestly thought he'd go up there and win; he was training like a monster."

After several paddock-schooling sessions, A Huevo returned to the races in an optional claiming race at Delaware Park on Sept. 21. He won by two lengths and ran six furlongs in 1:08.87.

Wakefield said Dickinson wanted to find another race for A Huevo before the De Francis, but every time he was entered, the track came up sloppy and the gelding was scratched.

On Saturday, A Huevo will try to win his biggest race.

"A race like this might do him in," Hopkins said. "I don't know how long he's going to last."