11/10/2008 12:00AM

Focus on Turf Paradise


Turf Paradise has been operating in Phoenix for more than 50 years as the track with the most alluring name in the game. It also steadfastly has maintained its reputation as one of the fastest tracks in the nation.

Zip Pocket ran five furlongs in 55.40 here in 1967; G Malleah ran six furlongs in 1:06.60 here in 1995 to set a world record that only was eclipsed on an aberrantly fast synthetic track at Santa Anita in 2008.

In between Zip Pocket and G Malleah, Turf Paradise sprinters ran six furlongs in 1:07.80 or faster on 29 different occasions with no special track maintenance, nothing but normal weather conditions. In addition, Turf Paradise has gone through a few ownership changes and its share of physical improvements en route to its present meet schedule, from early October through early May.

Hardly a forum for huge purses, Turf Paradise does have a schedule of 50 stakes, including nine for Quarter Horses.

On the balanced stakes program for Thoroughbreds, there are two for $100,000, one for $75,000, two for $40,000 and 36 for $50,000 apiece. But Turf Paradise and its loyal band of owners and trainers probably appreciate even more the value of its daily purses that reward the concentration of lower-priced claimers and maiden claimers a chance to pay their bills with purses worth $6,500 for $5,000 maiden claimers and $5,500 for rock-bottom $3,000 claiming winners.

Going in the other direction, $6,000 claimers run for $8,000, and if there is any potential hole in the program that may prove useful to horseplayers, it is that $16,000 claimers run for only $10,500, which opens the door to dropdown maneuvers given the narrow difference in purses at the $16,000 and $6,000 claiming levels.

Loyal Turf Paradise horseplayers have a few other positive angles worth keeping in mind, including the track’s general availability on most simulcast networks and its relative freedom from the kind of pitched battles over every nickel and dime that is plaguing account-wagering companies in California, Kentucky and Florida.

If you want to play Turf Paradise, you probably can, and if you do not, you probably should take another look.

Consider: The glib main track is not automatically friendly to front-running types. In fact, there was a slow rail path on Nov. 2 which placed a premium on tactical speed and trips in the three to six path, a fact that could explain the defeat of several speed horses who faded after battling for the lead along the rail.

The turf course, which occupies a prominent role in Turf Paradise’s seven-month schedule, has been kept under wraps through the first month, but a good turf racing schedule is beginning to pick up steam. As such, we can expect to see several shippers from Southern California come in for turf stakes and allowance races. The local turf horses can hold their own against the invaders, but not against genuine graded stakes types looking for a soft spot.

Beyond those elementary considerations, the key to winning at this track is to pay close attention to the winning patterns of some of the best low-profile, high-percentage trainers in America.

Take Justin Evans for instance. A winner with 33 percent of his starters at the meet and 28 percent for the year, Evans is particularly strong with horses he just claimed. The 5-year-old gelding Golden Jive is a perfect case in point.

Golden Jive was third in a $6,250 claimer on Oct. 20 for familiar trainer Kevin Eikleberry, but won his first outing for Evans at the same level on Nov. 8 and paid $9.20. Evans also won another race on the Nov. 8 card, with Barclay Drive, whom he claimed out of a distant second-place finish in a $3,000 claimer on Oct. 24.

On this same Nov. 8 racing card there was at least one other example of the value of having one of Turf Paradise’s top-notch trainers calling the shots. That trainer was Mike Chambers, who ran a seemingly ill-matched, inexperienced horse in the $50,000 Caballos Del Sol Stakes.

As mentioned, Evans and Chambers are just two of several talented trainers at Turf Paradise who tend to win at 25 percent or more at their home track. Some others are Sam Alton, Carol Hubbard and Charles Essex, all of whom are near 40 percent, with at least five wins apiece during the first month of the meet.

Chambers’s high win percentages here and elsewhere include a set of equally imposing win ratios in several pertinent categories listed under Came to Pass’s past performance profile. Came to Pass is in fact an interesting study on several counts. Here is a 4-year-old gelding entered in a stakes race in just his third career start, 21 months after he was last seen fading from contention in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park, Feb. 11, 2007.

The high win percentages Chambers regularly achieves are why his horses rarely offer value in the win pool. Chambers has a 32 percent winning ratio with horses he is training for the first time; a 38 percent win ratio with horses that are returning from a long layoff; and a 37 percent win percentage with horses on dirt tracks. Although two of those three high-percentage categories fail to produce long-term profits, this specific horse demonstrated Chambers’s high degree of skill off an extended layoff, which happens to be a category that produces a positive return on investment for Chambers. But, aside from this statistical advantage, horseplayers who go beyond the provincial Turf Paradise past performances and maintain a familiarity with the game nationwide sometimes can find an unusual wagering opportunity here, as this Chambers-trained horse clearly suggests.

Specifically, if you were following racing in 2007, you would have had no trouble recognizing the high quality competition Came to Pass competed against in his lone start against winners at Gulfstream in February 2007.

Delightful Kiss, the winner of that Gulfstream race at one mile, went on to win the Ohio Derby and Iowa Derby last year and added two more graded stakes in 2008.

Sightseeing, who finished second, also was a graded stakes winner in New York last year, and third-place finisher Chelokee won two stakes, including the Grade 3 Northern Dancer and the Barbaro Stakes at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard for Barbaro’s fine trainer, Michael Matz.

Given those early signs of class and the extensive workout line that included a bullet six-furlong drill in 1:10.60 on Oct. 24 and a final seven-furlong drill in 1:29.20 a week before this race – and given Chambers’s excellent layoff stats and consistent ability to put horses in the right races at the right time – it may be as astonishing to you as it was to me to have seen this horse go to the post at 11-1 odds.

The mere fact that Chambers skipped over running Come to Pass in an allowance race after spending so much time dealing with whatever put him on the sidelines for so many months suggested that Come to Pass was a live contender in this spot. Those who trusted the ultra-reliable Chambers were rewarded with a 1 3/4-length victory at very generous odds with leading jockey Ry Eikleberry aboard. At the bottom line, this was a super training job by one of the best trainers in the West who shares something else with Turf Paradise. Neither he nor the track get the publicity they deserve.