11/25/2006 1:00AM

Thor's Echo helps Eclipse chances

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LAUREL, Md. - Are two Grade 1 stakes victories within three weeks, including the Breeders' Cup Sprint, good enough to propel Thor's Echo to an Eclipse Award? Trainer Doug O'Neill certainly hopes so, but even he admits that Thor's Echo doesn't have the champion sprinter title locked up.

A 4-year-old based in California, Thor's Echo strengthened his Eclipse credentials Saturday afternoon at Laurel Park when he withstood the 3-year-old Diabolical by three-quarters of a length in the Grade 1, $300,000 Frank De Francis Memorial Dash.

Thor's Echo ($4.20) sat in fourth behind swift, contested fractions of 21.96 and 44.70 seconds set by Crafty Schemer, Attila's Storm, and Coppertone Kid. Coming into the stretch, jockey Corey Nakatani made a four-wide move with Thor's Echo, who dug down and refused to allow Diabolical to get past him.

"I thought I had him," said Mario Pino, who rode Diabolical. "He charged at him, but that horse just kept digging in. We were running; I just couldn't get by the winner."

Nightmare Affair, the third-place finisher in the BC Sprint, had to settle for third again, a neck behind Diabolical. The winning time for six furlongs on a fast track was 1:08.71.

The 17th running of the Dash highlighted a Fall Festival of Racing card that featured six other six-figure stakes, including four contested on turf. All-sources handle on the 10-race card, boosted by an ontrack crowd of 12,408, was $5,518,830, a record for De Francis Dash Day.

O'Neill said he's hopeful voters will be swayed by what Thor's Echo has accomplished in November, but cautioned that Bordonaro and Henny Hughes are still viable contenders.

O'Neill pointed to comments by Daily Racing Form publisher Steven Crist in the Washington Post, in which Crist said he was leaning toward Bordonaro.

"Steve Crist said we'd have to win this race by 14 lengths to change his mind," O'Neill said. "Well, we won by about 14 inches, not 14 lengths.

"In our minds, Thor's Echo is a deserving champion. We're certainly in a much better situation now than if we had not come to Maryland and won this race."

Nakatani said it was remarkable that Thor's Echo managed to win on a day when not everything fell perfectly into place.

"On the turn, if you watch the replay, you'll see he slipped," Nakatani said. "He wasn't really handling the track, because it was so deep. But he's a champion. When that horse was coming at me through the lane, he just dug in some more and gave me everything I needed."