TVG Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) champion Thor's Echo, racing in the Superman silks of Suarez Racing, made his case for a 2006 Eclipse Award, repelling a menacing challenge from the unlucky Diabolical to win the $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (gr. I) at Laurel Park Saturday.
Breaking from the far outside, Thor's Echo, the 11-10 choice in the field of nine, was four or five wide all the way for regular rider Corey Nakatani while surging past the pacesetting Crafty Schemer approaching the eighth pole. Diabolical, bottled up on the inside, angled out five or six paths wide for the drive under Mario Pino. He closed to Thor's Echo's withers in deep stretch but the winner pulled away in the final strides to win by three quarters of a length under a drive from Nakatani. The final time was a sharp 1:08 3/5.
Diabolical held off the 3-1 second choice Nightmare Affair and jockey Ramon Dominguez by a neck for second.
The California-bred Thor's Echo, a four-length winner of the BC Sprint at odds of 15-1 Nov. 4 for trainer Doug O'Neill, benefited from a sizzling pace Saturday, stalking Crafty Schemer, Attila's Storm, and Coppertone Kid in fourth through fractions of :21 4/5, :44 3/5 and :56 3/5. He shifted inward after taking the lead but got straightened out in time to get the job done.
"He's a champion, and I told Dougie that he wasn't really handling it because the track was deep today," Nakatani said. "He's run a tremendous race coming off the Breeders' Cup win to run this way.
"Diabolical was coming at me through the lane, and he just dug in some more and gave me everything I needed. I just wanted to give him confidence. On the turn, if you watch the replay, you'll see he slipped. It's just part of racing and what a job Doug and his team have done with this horse."
"What a great race," Pino said of Diabolical's effort. "I thought I had him. He charged at him but that other horse just kept digging in. We were running, I just couldn't get by the winner."
O'Neill said he wasn't concerned that Thor's Echo wasn't near the leaders on the backstretch. "The nice thing about Thor's Echo is he's so versatile," he said. "We knew, if they were crawling early, he'd be right there on the lead.
"Everything has gone really well. We knew we had to do one more thing to be in contention for sprinter of the year and, hopefully, his effort will make him one of the three (nominated for the sprint championship) and we'll see what happens. If we are, we are going to have a great time at the Eclipse dinner."
The chestnut Thor's Echo races for the partnership of Royce S. Jaime Racing Stable and Suarez Racing Inc. Bred by Fast Lane Farms & Block & Forman, the 4-year-old Swiss Yodeler
gelding has won twice in 2006, both grade I victories, and placed three times in seven starts this season. His runner-up finishes included the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup (gr. I) and the Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I). Overall, he has five wins in 18 lifetime starts and earnings of $2,372,990.
O'Neill said he is thinking about next season for Thor's Echo.
"We hope to take him back there (to Dubai) again and run for the big money," he said. "This horse gives everything he has every time, and he's a gelding so we don't have to worry about his going to a breeding farm."
Thor's Echo paid $4.20, $2.80, and $2.40. Diabolical, coming off a 2 1/2-length win in the Gallant Bob Handicap at Philadelphia Park Oct. 7, returned $5.80 and $3.80. Nightmare Affair, who ran third in the BC Sprint while 4 1/2 lengths behind Thor's Echo, was much closer this time after overcoming a troubled start and closing impressively. He was $2.60 to show.
"I don't want to make excuses or take anything away from the top two, but (Nightmare Affair) broke awkward and to the outside," Dominguez said. "He relaxed and finished up well."
Crafty Schemer, Mach Speed, Celtic Innis, Attila's Storm, Joey Carson, and Coppertone Kid completed the order.
A crowd of 12,408 enjoyed the eight stakes races that comprise the Fall Festival of Racing on a sunny afternoon in central Maryland. A total of $5,518,830 passed through the pari-mutuel windows on the 10-race card at Laurel Park, a record for the 17-year history of De Francis Dash day. The previous record was $4,748,711 set a year ago. Overall the card featured 110 horses with 107 betting interests.
In the Laurel Futurity, a 2-year-old turf race won last year by eventual Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Barbaro, Strike a Deal ran down leader Rutledge Cat in the stretch to win the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:45.94 under Ramon Dominguez.