Published in the Nov. 24 issue of The Blood-Horse
A million-dollar international race doesn't usually serve as practice for a $300,000 stakes in Maryland. But following a script that was part wisdom and part luck, the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (gr. I) Nov. 17 at Laurel Park. In the Sprint, the astute California trainers Jim Chapman and Bruce Headley watched the little filly from Maryland, Xtra Heat, shoot into the lead and then, to their amazement, hold on nearly to the end. After learning their lesson, they decided to take her on again in the De Francis Dash--even though she was on her home track, carried a significant weight advantage, and they had to fly their horses cross-country again to get there. "I don't think any of us thought she'd be around at the sixteenth pole," said Chapman, referring to Xtra Heat in the Sprint. "She's an exceptional filly. But to win (the De Francis Dash) she's going to have to run harder than she did in the Breeders' Cup. Caller One's going to be breathing down her neck, and Kona Gold's going to be right there, stalking." Kona Gold didn't fulfill that prophecy, but Caller One did. On an unseasonably mild fall afternoon in front of 10,114 patrons, the speedy gelding dueled Xtra Heat into submission, setting the stage for Delaware Township's charge from last to win the De Francis Dash. Sixth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, the New York-based Delaware Township scored his biggest win in his final race. The 5-year-old will be retired to stud with 11 victories in 21 starts and earnings of $996,950. "We feel vindicated," said Ben Perkins Jr., his trainer. "We were so disappointed after the Breeders' Cup. We thought we had a real chance to win it." The Sprint was the first race in which Caller One met a faster horse. The 4-year-old son of Phone Trick had led at some point in all 15 of his previous races. In the Sprint, he could not keep up with Xtra Heat. So Chapman replaced jockey Corey Nakatani with David Flores, and in the paddock before the De Francis Dash, according to Flores, Chapman said: "Just let him run." Caller One broke in front, but within a few strides Xtra Heat had passed him and led by a half-length. With Harry Vega riding Xtra Heat patiently on the rail, Flores urged Caller One as if they were racing to a fire. Caller One pursued Xtra Heat on a dull track through a sizzling quarter-mile in :21.50 and a blistering half-mile in :44.22. That allowed Jerry Bailey to take Delaware Township back to last, swing him wide into the clear, then overtake the spent pacesetters for a three-length victory. Delaware Township, a Florida-bred son of Notebook, completed the six furlongs in 1:09 and returned $8.80. Early Flyer charged from fifth for second. The gutsy Xtra Heat managed to hang on for third, while the aggressive Caller One finished next to last. Seven-year-old Say Florida Sandy, the richest New York-bred in history, might have claimed second if not for traffic problems in the stretch. He crossed the wire fifth. John Salzman, trainer of Xtra Heat, was irate after the race. As Flores conferred with Chapman, Salzman and his son, John Jr., berated them. The Salzmans said Caller One couldn't outrun their filly so he "cooked" her. Flores and Chapman did not respond. Later, Flores said: "Too bad about the filly. I was just doing my job. I just do what they say. Those were my instructions: 'Just send him.' " John Salzman refused to discuss the race with reporters. "Why do you want to talk to me?" he barked. "I lost. Go talk to the winners." The veteran horseman bought Xtra Heat for $5,000 last year at a Timonium auction. The modestly bred 3-year-old has earned $1,274,150, winning 17 of 22 races. Xtra Heat's second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint put her in contention for Eclipse Awards as North America's top sprinter and 3-year-old filly. She probably needed to defeat males to remain a strong candidate for the sprint award, but remains a leading contender for year-end honors as the best 3-year-old filly. Salzman yanked the mount on Xtra Heat in the Dash from Jorge Chavez, who rode her flawlessly in the Breeders' Cup, after a dispute with Chavez' agent. Salzman declined to discuss the dispute publicly. At the last minute he chose Vega, the Maryland rider of the speedy but recently retired Disco Rico, to ride his filly in the Dash. Kona Gold, the 2-1 favorite, finished a lackluster fourth. His trainer, Bruce Headley, said: "Everything went perfect. He just didn't fire. I think he's tired. Old age may be catching up to him." Kona Gold is the reigning champion sprinter. After winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint last year he finished seventh this year. Headley said he would turn out the 7-year-old for three months in a half-acre paddock at his home in Arcadia, Calif., and decide later about racing him next year. With a suicidal duel up front and a tired Kona Gold in mid-pack, Delaware Township snatched the glory. He was 10-1 in the Breeders' Cup but 3-1 in the Dash, largely because of the appeal of Bailey. Eibar Coa rode Delaware Township in the Sprint. Bailey rode the winner, Squirtle Squirt, who will now likely waltz home with an Eclipse statue. "Anytime you have a come-from-behind sprinter you need two things to go your way," Bailey said. "You need pace, and you need a lack of traffic problems. It just stood to reason that with Caller One and Xtra Heat you were going to have plenty of pace." Perkins, the Belmont-based trainer, said Delaware Township runs better in smaller fields. For whatever reason, Perkins said, the horse dislikes crowds. He said in the seven-horse Dash with the country's top rider in charge, Delaware Township was right at home. "I was pretty confident," Perkins said. "You kind of knew that after the last time they weren't going to let the filly go slow. This is just how I hoped things would work out." Perkins lamented the impending retirement of the regal Delaware Township, owned by Eb Novak's New Farm. Perkins noted the horse's earnings, just shy of a million dollars. His eyes brightened at the prospect of surpassing that milestone. "I'll have to talk to Mr. Novak about that," Perkins said, smiling. Chris McCarron, riding Early Flyer in his first race since May, when he badly bruised a hind foot, was delighted with the 3-year-old colt's runner-up effort. "What a terrific race," McCarron said. "My horse ran his heart out, but Delaware Township was too good today." The De Francis Dash attracted the strongest field since its inception in 1990 because of the lure of possibly winning an Eclipse Award. Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said it was a "no-brainer" to move the Dash from summer--when competition in New York was stiff--to the fall, when a grade I sprint could claim racing's center stage. But even Raffetto acknowledged that having no clear-cut Eclipse winner before the Dash was luck, the final ingredient in the making of a memorable race.