01/19/2008 12:00AM

Damp mornings lead to faster times at Tampa

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - The main track at Tampa Bay Downs has, with only a few exceptions, been much faster and more speed-favoring than in the past.

One racing program earlier this meet featured three 6 1/2-furlong sprints. In two of those races, the leader covered the opening six furlongs in 1:10 and change, and in the other the leader raced six panels in a blistering 1:09.99. More recently, on Jan. 12, an $8,000 claimer named Forli's Con Man covered seven furlongs in 1:23.74 after smoking through the opening six furlongs in 1:10.84. And in the six-furlong Sandpiper Stakes that same afternoon, Lookingforthesecret sped through six furlongs in 1:09.30, setting a stakes record.

The Tampa Bay surface has long been known for its safe composition rather than its fast clockings. The folks who work to keep the track and the horses safe say that Mother Nature is responsible for the faster-than-usual times this meet.

"We've had a number of days since this meet's started where its been foggy and damp in the morning, and when that happens a lot more moisture stays in the racing strip between training hours and the racing in the afternoon," said track superintendent Tom McLaughlin. "We've had a lot fewer afternoons with high winds and a high sky, a sky with few clouds and bright sun. When we get a day like that, the top of the surface gets crusty and fluffy as it dries out, and the speed doesn't hold up as well.

"The weather this year has dictated we use less water from the water trucks than in previous years. We haven't done anything different to the surface."

Handicappers should check the flags and sky here each race day. A calm and cloudy day usually spells speed-favoring conditions, but if the wind is whipping, the chances of stalkers and closers may improve.

* Apprentice jockey Jorge Monserrate Jr. and trainer Bill Moran had a memorable afternoon Jan. 12. Monserrate won the first two races of his career, booting home Smart Partner ($11.60) in the fourth and Marigot Red ($22) in the nightcap. Both were trained by Moran.

* Holy Helen won her 2008 debut last Thursday in style. A Holy Bull filly trained by Jane Cibelli, Holy Helen had been slated to try turf in that 1 1/16-mile allowance, but when the race was moved to the main track, she drew off without need of strong handling to win by five lengths. Holy Helen is eligible for the $75,000 Suncoast Stakes on Feb. 16.