06/12/2003 12:00AM

Burning Roma back on the turf


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Trainer Heather Giglio watched with amazement as Volponi won the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic, and the "what if?" question flashed through her mind.

What if she had run Burning Roma in the Classic? After all, Burning Roma had just beaten Volponi in the Meadowlands Cup.

It was a thought that passed quickly. The 1 1/4-mile Classic distance was simply beyond Burning Roma's scope.

"You always think, what if," Giglio said outside her barn at Monmouth Park. "Honestly, the distance is not him. We made a decision based on him. He just can't go that far. The Meadowlands Cup was the only time he got a mile and an eighth."

Giglio, stabled for the first time at Monmouth, has focused on keeping Burning Roma happy and comfortable. The 5-year-old has won 11 races and more than $1.3 million and could be entering a new phase in his career.

Burning Roma headlines the $100,000 Grade 3 Oceanport Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the turf on Saturday afternoon.

He shares top weight in the field - along with Balto Star - of 119 pounds for his second grass start. Burning Roma won the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup Stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs turf by a widening five lengths. He returned to the main track to run second and fourth in a pair of seven-furlong stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Giglio, encouraged by that grass race, wanted to get Burning Roma back on the turf. For all his success on dirt, Giglio believes the horse is even better on grass.

He will have to be sharp to handle quality opponents that include Patrol (117 pounds), third in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs, and Saint Verre (118), beaten a neck in the Red Bank Handicap, Monmouth's opening day feature originally scheduled for the turf but run on the sloppy main track.

Giglio, who has six horses on the grounds and is looking for stalls for six more, has been searching for a summer track to call home. She tried Delaware Park last year, but Burning Roma didn't like the racing surface there.

"We ran him there a couple of times and he didn't really handle it that well," Giglio said.

So far, Monmouth has been a better fit for Giglio and Burning Roma.

"We've won two already here and I like it a lot," Giglio said. "He [Burning Roma] likes it. He's worked tremendous over it.