By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
On Saturday, Laurel Park will play host to a fantastic day of racing that includes six stakes races, highlighted by the $350,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash. A six-furlong sprint that serves as a sort of consolation prize for horses that didn’t win or run in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, this year’s De Francis Dash has drawn a very deep field of nine horses—let’s take a look at who’s running!
Any analysis of this race must start with Palace, the two-time grade I winner whose campaign has been repeatedly interrupted by injury this year. A consistent competitor that has won 12 of his 27 races, Palace started the season with a so-so fifth in the Carter Handicap (gr. I), then suffered a hoof injury when stumbling at the start of the John Morrissey Stakes at Saratoga, a race in which he finished third. Two months later, he turned in a huge effort to finish fourth in the Vosburgh Invitational (gr. I), beaten just three-quarters of a length, but re-aggravated his hoof injury after the race and missed a bit of training. Despite this setback, he was fit enough to win the October 24th Hudson Stakes at Belmont by a half-length, and while that race wasn’t his best in terms of Beyer speed figures—he received only a 93—he should gain a lot of fitness from that race and I believe he’ll run much better in the De Francis Dash, which is expected to mark the final start of his career.
His main challenger will likely be Stallwalkin’ Dude, another very consistent runner that finished third in the Vosburgh Invitational (gr. I) and eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I), beaten just 4 ¾ lengths. In terms of Beyer speed figures, he’s pretty much on par with Palace, and while he’s running back on short rest, this is something that Stallwalkin’ Dude has done several times in the past with reasonable success. Both Stallwalkin’ Dude and Palace have similar running styles, and choosing between them is difficult, but my gut feeling is that Palace is being prepped to go out on a high note—the addition of blinkers suggests that his connections are looking for a big effort from Palace—and I think with the benefit of the Hudson as a prep race, Palace will be ready to end his career with a victory.
Another logical candidate is Trouble Kid, who has won four straight races in impressive fashion, including the Gallant Bob Stakes (gr. III) and Valley Forge Stakes at Parx. He’s got a lot of speed and is thoroughly proven at six furlongs, but I think he was aided by a speed-favoring track in the Gallant Bob and might be in a little deep while taking on a field of this caliber. Also, under the weight conditions of the De Francis Dash, Trouble Kid will actually be carrying top weight of 122 pounds, four pounds more than Palace and Stallwalkin’ Dude.
For a longshot, you might want to consider Cutty Shark. During a four-month span from October 2014 through February 2015, Cutty Shark was as consistent as could be, winning a claiming race and two allowance races and placing in three stakes races, including a neck defeat in the seven-furlong General George Stakes (gr. III) at Laurel. But a month later, he finished last in an allowance race at Laurel, and following a long layoff, he returned on October 23rd to finish last again in another Laurel allowance race. It’s definitely hard to endorse him off his last two efforts, but there’s a chance that he could rebound with the benefit of a race under his belt, and if he goes off at 20-1 or more, I think he’s worth a look to round out the trifecta or superfecta.
Another good longshot candidate is Gentlemen’s Bet, who finished a respectable fifth behind Runhappy in the Phoenix Stakes (gr. III) while returning from a long layoff. Earlier this year, when returning from an even longer layoff, Gentlemen’s Bet finished third in an Oaklawn allowance race before winning the Hot Springs Stakes with a Beyer of 107. We know he’s got class, as he finished third in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) after leading past the eighth pole, and when he’s at his very best, he’s arguably the fastest horse in the race.
To me, handicapping the De Francis Dash comes down to this: Palace and Stallwalkin’ Dude enter the race in good form and are very evenly matched on paper. I think Palace has the edge, but regardless, do I want to take a short price in a race this contentious? Gentlemen’s Bet has a lot to prove, but has back class that could win this race. He’s not the most likely winner, but I think there’s a good chance that he’ll be overlooked in the wagering, and 10-1 or more would be excellent value. If he goes off near those odds, he is my selection to win.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Frank De Francis Dash?
On November 6th, a two-year-old gelding by the name of Whitmore made his debut in a six-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs (VIDEO) and stamped himself as a horse to watch on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Trained by Ron Moquett, the son of Pleasantly Perfect didn’t get off to the best of starts, but quickly recovered to race in third place behind fractions of :21.62 and :45.78. Entering the homestretch, Whitmore pounced to the lead, and despite racing greenly, he drew off to win by 7 ¼ lengths, running his final quarter-mile in :24.72 to stop the clock in the quick time of 1:10.50. Notably, he is among the pre-entries for the November 21st Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) at Delta Downs, and even more notably, he was nominated to that race before he made his debut. Time will tell, but I think Whitmore has the potential to be something special.
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.