Last year before the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, trainer Leo Nechamkin told the Daily Racing Form that he believed his colt, Gators N Bears, was "going to run the race of his life."
True to his word, Nechamkin's horse turned in a powerful performance, dueling for the lead before being passed late by winner A Huevo and dropping to third in the Grade I $300,000 race at Laurel Park. In the ensuing year, Nechamkin, 54, of Glenwood, Md., has watched Gators N Bears develop into one of the fastest, most consistent sprinters on the East Coast.
Despite the race attracting one of the best fields of any six-furlong race in the country this year, Nechamkin enters the 15th running of the De Francis on Saturday at Pimlico with even greater confidence.
"I think he's going to have to run a terrific race, but, to tell you the truth, I think he doesn't have to run the race of his life to be there," said Nechamkin, a Pimlico-based trainer in the early mornings and on race days and the chief financial officer of a Baltimore architectural firm on weekdays. "I think he'll be one-two-three in the race because he's that kind of horse."
Dismissed by track handicapper Frank Carulli with odds of 15-1, Gators N Bears nevertheless heads a strong local contingent waiting to take on many of the fastest horses in the country. Midas Eyes, a 4-year-old colt guided by Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in the likely field of 10.
Gators N Bears was bred in 2000 by Bob Camac, the same horseman who recommended the mating that led to Smarty Jones. Close followers of that wonder-horse know Camac and his wife were shot and killed in December 2001. Camac's stepson was later convicted of the killings.
At the family estate sale, Nechamkin purchased a homebred yearling for $8,500, who turned out to be Gators N Bears. The horse has finished in the money in 21 out of 23 lifetime starts with 10 victories.
After a victory in a $200,000 sprint stakes race at Suffolk Downs in June, Nechamkin planned to use the Grade II A.G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga as a steppingstone to the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Gators N Bears went into the Saratoga race with a stone bruise, finished third, and hobbled out with a full-blown abscess that took 41/2 weeks to heal, knocking him out of the championship.
The De Francis, while not the Breeders' Cup, still gives Nechamkin to show off his horse in a major national race. His co-owners have been pressuring him to retire Gators N Bears at the end of the year to what they believe will be a lucrative career at stud.
"These things become like surrogate children if you care for them," Nechamkin said. "It's like watching them go to college. When they're gone, you go from being a somebody to a nobody."