Faced with assembling a competitive field for its premier summer race, Laurel Park officials had to scramble for horses yesterday after only three were initially entered for the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash.
By late afternoon, however, recruiters in the racing office had enticed the trainers of four more horses to enter Saturday's $300,000, 6-furlong race. That boosted the field for one of the country's most prestigious sprints to seven, about average for the race. Since its inception in 1990, the De Francis Dash has averaged 7.8 horses.
Lenny Hale, the Maryland Jockey Club vice president of racing, and David Rollinson, its stakes coordinator, attributed this year's lack of interest to a dearth of top sprinters plus the usual injuries and illnesses.
"It's always been a difficult race to fill," Rollinson said. "But that's primarily because there's been one exceptional horse in the field. This time, it seems there're just so few good sprinters around."
The best contesting this year's Dash is apparently Richter Scale, the high weight at 123 pounds and the morning-line favorite at 2-1. He and his trainer, Mary Jo Lohmeier, arrived at Laurel yesterday after a flight from their home base at Keeneland in Kentucky.
Lohmeier said her 6-year-old speedster, a winner of Grade II and III stakes, was primed to win his first Grade I. Winning a Grade I stakes, the nation's toughest, enhances a horse's value, especially if he's soon headed to stud, as Richter Scale probably is.
The De Francis Dash earned its Grade I rank last year after several strong runnings. Maryland has only two other Grade I stakes: the Preakness and Pimlico Special.
Hale, the track official, said the De Francis Dash could lose Grade I status if the quality of its field deteriorated over the next couple of years. Its place in the racing hierarchy could be threatened by sprints at other tracks with competitive purses, Hale said.
"If we had a purse of $500,000, we might have gotten a couple of the California horses," Hale said. "And we might have gotten Trippi."
Trippi is a 3-year-old fireball based in New York pointed for stakes at Saratoga. The connections of the California sprinters Kona Gold, Big Jag and Lexicon opted to keep their horses home rather than ship cross-country to Maryland.
The three early-bird entrants in the Dash were Richter Scale, Intidab and Just Call Me Carl. Stabled at Belmont Park, Intidab recently won the Grade II True North Handicap, a 6-furlong sprint at Belmont on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Just Call Me Carl is a locally based sprinter, a winner of three Maryland stakes in a row.
After twisting arms and tracking down trainers on cell phones, Laurel officials lured four more horses into the Dash: the Pimlico-based Clever Gem, a winner of seven of eight races; the Belmont-based Falkenburg, a winner of five of seven, and the long shots Holiday Music and Changing otheguard.
One trainer who kept his horse home, the Kentucky-based Paul McGee, said he believes a variety of factors contributed to the low number of entrants. For instance, he said, he kept Bet On Sunshine, who would have been one of the Dash favorites, at Churchill Downs because his last race knocked him out more than expected, and the 8-year-old gelding's owner wasn't inclined to ship the horse to Maryland.
"It's probably just a strange year," McGee said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the race; $300,000 is a lot of money for a sprint."
De Francis Dash
What: Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash
Where: Laurel Park
Distance: 6 furlongs
Post time: 5:23 p.m.
Favorite: Richter Scale