The Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash today at Laurel Park is a racing rarity: a Grade I sprint.
Even more than the Preakness and Pimlico Special, the state's other major thoroughbred races, the De Francis Dash carries great clout in determining winners of coveted Eclipse awards honoring the year's top horses.
The winner of the Dash will shine brighter in racing's firmament at year's end than the winners of the Preakness for 3-year-olds or the Pimlico Special for older horses. They will compete for attention with winners of comparable or greater races within their division.
But the winner of the De Francis Dash will stand apart from nearly every other sprinter in the country. The $300,000 Dash is one of only two Grade I stakes of six furlongs, or three-quarters of a mile. The $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint is the other.
Since its inception in 1990, three De Francis Dash winners have earned their place in racing history as the year's top sprinter, or flat-out swiftest horse: Housebuster in 1991, Cherokee Run in 1994 and Smoke Glacken in 1997.
Of the seven speedsters entered today in the Dash, one stands the best chance of joining that elite roster. Richter Scale, the 2-1 program favorite, is by far the most accomplished runner in the race, with earnings of $959,958 in 23 races spaced over five years.
The 6-year-old California-bred has won 11 races, of which nine were stakes. Seven were graded, five were Grade II and two were Grade III.
In addition, the Dash in its 10 years has catered to favorites. The bettors' choice has won the past six and seven of the 10.
But Richter Scale has a history of foot problems: Cracks in his hoof. And he hasn't raced since May 29 when, his Keeneland-based trainer, Mary Jo Lohmeier, said, a lung infection compromised his chances in the Grade I Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. Richter Scale finished sixth.
Despite his favorite's status, he is not the kind of invincible sprinter who normally scares off opponents. Yet when Laurel Park officials accepted entries Wednesday for the Dash, Richter Scale was one of only three in line. The others were Intidab, stabled at Belmont Park, and Just Call Me Carl, housed at Laurel.
The racing office lured four more horses for a field of seven, respectable for a Grade I stakes. But its overall quality, even with Richter Scale, lacks the star power of some De Francis Dashes.
"The sprint division might be a little light this year," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Intidab. "But it's a Grade I offering a lot of money. We're happy to be there with a chance."
And Intidab, a 7-year-old son of Phone Trick, has a big chance. If Richter Scale and Pimlico speedball Clever Gem lock horns in a speed duel, Intidab could swoop from far back and overtake them both.
He is a certified closer who developed his style in the Middle East as the property of Dubai's Sheik Hamdan. In 12 races in this country, Intidab has benefited from the bleeder-medication Lasix and experience, said McLaughlin, a former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas.
"He was a peculiar horse," McLaughlin said. "He didn't seem to like the whip. And we didn't think he liked to take the lead too soon because of all those seconds and thirds. But I think he's outgrown all that. He's doing very well."
The home team's Clever Gem and Just Call Me Carl offer some intriguing options for bettors. A 4-year-old Maryland-bred son of Clever Trick, Clever Gem has captured seven of eight races at six furlongs, seven furlongs and 1 1/16 miles.
"He's still real green," said Mary Eppler, his trainer. "Once he gets in front, his mind starts wondering. He starts looking around and sort of playing. But he does everything pretty easily. He has a chance. They all do, don't they?"
A 5-year-old son of Strawberry Road, Just Call Me Carl enters the Dash on a three-race win streak. But like Clever Gem, he has padded his record against horses of lesser stock than Richter Scale and Intidab.
Still, his trainer, Dale Capuano, is one of the hottest in the country.
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