Laki (#4) toughed out a nose victory in the Grade 3 De Francis Dash at Pimlico. Photo by Allison Janezic.

When Laki held on in a frantic finish to win the Grade 3 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash last October at Pimlico Race Course, it marked trainer Damon Dilodovico’s first graded stakes win.

Saturday Laki will seek to defend that title against five rivals in the latest De Francis renewal. Regular pilot Horacio Karamanos will ride Laki, who is 6-1 on the morning line. Jalen Journey, trained by Steve Asmussen, is the 7-5 morning line favorite.

“That was incredible. My first graded race. You’d like to think you don’t count those things but you start to wonder if you’ll ever get one,” Dilodovico said of last year’s De Francis score. “Two years ago, I thought he’d win a number of them. It’s just the way things go. He knocked it out, and it was an exciting race to boot. It was a big day.”

It was the second time that Dilodovico had recorded the biggest win of his career in the De Francis. The first, back in 2013, came with Immortal Eyes during the five-year period when the De Francis had lost its graded, though, interestingly, the purse that year, $350,000, was quite a bit higher than the $200,000 on offer Saturday.

“This is it,” Dilodovico said at the time to winning owner Bobby Abbo. “This is the top.” Less than a year later, Abbo would succumb to leukemia at age 70.

It’s certainly fitting that Laki joined Immortal Eyes as Dilodovico’s De Francis winners. They’re also the trainer’s top two money earners, with Laki’s $831,162 second to Immortal’s $1.06 million earned under the trainer’s tutelage.

Since his thrilling win in last year’s De Francis, conducted on the Preakness undercard because of the coronavirus pandemic, Laki, an eight-year-old Maryland-bred gelding by Cuba, has won just once in nine starts, all in stakes company. This will be Laki’s third career start in the De Francis.

Laki is 11-for-37 lifetime, including 8-for-23 at Laurel, with at least one stakes win five straight years, a streak he extended in the Frank Y. Whiteley going six furlongs April 24 at Pimlico. Subsequently fifth in the Maryland Sprint (G3), most recently he ran seventh in the Chesapeake Aug. 23 at speed-favoring Colonial Downs.

Three back, Laki ran second to Yaupon in the Lite the Fuse Stakes, named for the 1996 De Francis winner, at Pimlico July 4. Yaupon followed that up with a win in the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga August 28.

“He runs against quality horses every go. We were a little disappointed last time at Colonial. His style, it’s not going to be too successful on a track like that but you never know,” Dilodovico said. “He’s been training well this year. I don’t really feel like he doesn’t show up. They all get beat. He tends to circle back every fourth start or so and really launches a good number. Hopefully he’s sitting on one for this.”

Laki was bred in Maryland by Tom Michaels and Lorna Baker. Owned by Hillside Equestrian Meadows, he did not debut until November of his three-year-old season. He broke his maiden at second asking and three starts after that earned his first stakes win, in the 2017 Not for Love Stakes at Laurel Park. He has since earned six additional stakes wins.