01/02/2003 12:00AM

Dirt, turf, or does it even matter?

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Dirt or grass?

The facts speak for themselves and suggest Hail the Chief is a better horse on dirt. The evidence is highlighted by his rousing victory in the $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. He's won other stakes on the dirt in this country and in his native England, where he raced before coming here in the fall of 2001. He was considered a good horse on the all-weather tracks that offer a version of dirt racing in Europe.

Then, why is Hail the Chief not only part of the starting field for Saturday's $150,000 Appleton Handicap at one mile on the Gulfstream turf course, but one of the high weights, also?

Though he won five consecutive races on all-weather tracks to make a name for himself, he was also a winner on the grass, trainer Niall O'Callaghan points out. Hail the Chief, who has raced exclusively on the dirt in the U.S., has worked well on the grass from time to time. His connections reason that if he gives a solid showing in the Appleton, their options in making his future schedule would be substantially increased.

Hail the Chief has his work cut out in the Appleton. Balto Star, effective against class horses on dirt and grass, may be the one to beat in the talent-rich Appleton. North East Bound, a winner of more than $1.3 million, just missed by a head in last winter's Appleton. There are also others with credentials, but racing secretary and handicapper Dave Bailey pegs Hail the Chief within two pounds of Balto Star and only one pound below North East Bound.

Grass or dirt?

Wayne Lukas, the veteran of many a Kentucky Derby campaign, is delighted with his first victory in Calder's Tropical Park Derby on the turf. Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey's Nothing to Lose, a son of the fine grass horse Sky Classic, was forced to check on the first turn, but he rallied on the final turn, finished full of run, and prevailed by almost two lengths.

The homebred Nothing to Lose finished strongly on the Saratoga grass course last August to win his first start. He failed to mount a charge in two subsequent appearances, but regained his form at Calder in a prep for the Tropical Park Derby. With Jerry Bailey in the irons, he took the measure of a competitive field.

"He did it at nine furlongs," Lukas said. "He is bred to stay the classic distances, but first I want to speak with the Ramseys to get a sense of their plans for this horse. Physically he is in a growth period and gives the impression he will furnish out nicely. His best races have been on the grass but there is potential for achievement on the dirt."

The Ramseys, who make their home in Lexington, Ky., have horses with a number of trainers and have built a successful stable and breeding operation. They are off to an excellent start with a victory in the first derby of the New Year.