Lightly raced Vineyard Haven may be the rising star among a field of nine sprinters in Saturday's Frank De Francis Memorial Dash. But the presence of three other horses who earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures winning minor stakes in their most recent start hints that the 3-year-old Vineyard Haven may not be nearly the standout that his 8-5 morning-line odds suggest.
The Grade 1, $300,000 Dash, reinstated after a one-year-absence on Laurel Park's fall calendar, tops a 10-race card that includes two other $50,000 stakes for Maryland-breds, the Twixt and the Find Handicap.
Vineyard Haven, a two-time Grade 1 winner at 2 who has raced just twice this season, is using the Dash as a prep for his major autumn goal, the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Nov. 29.
"We thought this race would get him there as well as anything else," said Rick Mettee, the New York-based assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor.
Stepping up to face older horses for the first time, Vineyard Haven will be cutting back from seven furlongs to six, a distance Mettee admits isn't ideal. Vineyard Haven's best races have come on the lead, and Mettee said jockey Alan Garcia must be careful to avoid getting involved in what projects as a hot, contested early pace while breaking from the rail.
"You'd probably like him against good horses maybe a little better at seven than six," Mettee said, "and the way this race set up he's going to have to probably sit a little bit. But Alan's good with pace in races like this."
Roaring Lion, Ravalo, and Fleet Valid, a winner of four straight since he was claimed for $14,000, all earned Beyers of 100 or 101 last time out - compared to the 103 Vineyard Haven received for his most recent race, the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga. Although Vinyard Haven wired the field that day, he was disqualified and placed second for causing interference in the stretch.
Roaring Lion has won three straight, including the Maryland Million Sprint, since he was transferred to trainer Bruce Levine's stable.
"The Maryland Million race was pretty easy on him but he didn t face the kind of horses he s going to face this Saturday," Levine said. "He s doing super for us but this is going to be his acid test.
Ravalo has won 13 of 27, including nine stakes at the distance. His chances improved when two of the nation's top sprinters, Fabulous Strike and Kodiak Kowboy, were nominated but did not enter.
"I feel pretty good about our chances with Fabulous Strike not in the race," said trainer Donald Barr. "What s made my horse better is he is no longer a one-dimensional horse. He always had to have the lead or he wasn t interested in running and now he doesn t have to do that, which gives us more options.
"He can now play the race like it comes up, which makes him a better horse," Barr added. "He is much more professional."
Fleet Valid has vastly improved since trainer Scott Volk took him for $14,000 last spring at Aqueduct. Two of his last three wins during his four-race winning streak have produced Beyers of 100 or more, including the Icecapade Stakes at Monmouth Park in early September.
In 2007, while trained by Mike Trombetta, Fleet Valid competed in the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint Handicap against Diabolical and Talent Search, and the Iowa Sprint Handicap versus Benny the Bull. Fleet Valid was then claimed three times during a 15-month period before Volk acquired the 6-year-old in early April.
"It s an amazing story," Volk said. "We never dreamed this would happen. He returned to his old form. Somehow he s come back to life. He s been there before and now he s coming back and trying it again two years later."