BALTIMORE, AUG. 17 -- Trainer Eddie Gregson predicts that the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash "is going to be like a fight where you've got two heavyweights slugging it out from the first round."

The analogy is an apt one. When the starting gates spring open at Pimlico Saturday afternoon, the combatants immediately will throw everything they've got at each other. And what they've got is raw speed.

Safely Kept has had the early lead in every one of her 19 career starts, and this speed earned her the Eclipse Award as America's champion sprinter last season. Gregson's horse, Sunny Blossom, is the fastest sprinter in the West. He has rocketed a quarter-mile in 21 seconds flat. Few thoroughbreds have gone faster.

The outcome of this $350,000 race -- the second-richest sprint in the country -- probably will be determined at the start rather than in the stretch. In such matchups of front-running horses, the one who can seize the early lead usually will deliver a knockout punch to his rivals.

This event will be the first sprint stakes of national consequence to be a part of the Maryland racing schedule. Joe De Francis, Pimlico's president, wanted a race to honor the memory of his father, who had owned and revitalized the Maryland tracks before his death a year ago.

He consulted with Barry Weisbord, president of the firm Matchmaker International, who had helped Frank De Francis design the highly successful Pimlico Special and the International Turf Festival.

When Weisbord proposed a sprint race, he opened himself to criticism that he was serving his own interests, because he owns Safely Kept and a rich six-furlong race would be made to order for her. Weisbord conceded: "Maybe having a sprinter has heightened my sensitivity to sprint races. But we wanted to have a race of national significance, and what do you do? A 2-year-old race? Everybody's got one. A 3-year-old race? We already have the Preakness.

"We wanted to put on a race with a purse that would get horses to cross geographic boundaries, and a sprint seemed the best opportunity. Since the Breeders' Cup Sprint started offering a $1 million purse, there's been a lot more interest in sprints. In fact, I'm surprised that no one did it before us."

Nevertheless, Weisbord conceded he is a bit disappointed with the field the Dash has attracted. There are abundant numbers of high-quality sprinters who should have been tempted by this race, but stayed home.

Housebuster, the country's best 3-year-old at distances of up to a mile, was nominated but not entered. Nor was Beau Genius, winner of the recent Arlington Challenge Cup, who would have been a formidable stretch-running threat. Nor were any of the many good California sprinters beside Sunny Blossom.

But even with the seven-horse field that the Dash has drawn, it figures to be a highly competitive race -- and an intriguing challenge for handicappers. There is no question Safely Kept and Sunny Blossom are the two most talented entrants in the field, but they are both front-runners.

Moreover, the Florida horse Glitterman is a bullet, too, and he may be capable of running with the two favorites. If they all leave the gate in high gear, what will happen? Will one be able to dominate the others, or will the speed horses be the instruments of mutual destruction?

"If they go head and head to the eighth pole, and they haven't cleared the rest of the field, they're going to be in a lot of trouble," Gregson predicted. He had feared the entry of Beau Genius, who was the one high-class stretch-runner in the prospective lineup. Now the best stretch-runner in the field appears to be New York-based Sewickley.

Sewickley had such a good year in 1989 that he was favored in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but this year he is winless in five starts. However, trainer Scotty Schulhofer moans that Sewickley has been victimized in one race after another by a pace or by situations in which a single front-runner has been able to dominate the race.

He likes the looks of Saturday's field. "There will be enough speed for us to run at," he said. "He's the kind of horse that the race can set up for."

Kechi can also finish strongly, as he did when he scored the 18th victory of his career in a stakes at Pimlico last month. But he has never shown that he is quite this good.

The others in the field are Northern Wolf, the only Maryland-based entrant in the lineup, and Brave Adventurer, a New Jersey invader who seems clearly outclassed.