05/20/2003 11:00PM

Get to know grass trends at Woodbine

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Grass racing returns to Woodbine this week, which usually means full fields and many intriguing betting opportunities.

The European-style E.P. Taylor turf course, which encircles the main track, is 1 1/2 miles in circumference. It has the longest turf stretch on the continent - 1,140 feet. The backstretch is three feet higher than the homestretch.

Races up to 1 1/8 miles are run around one turn, with the 1 1/8-mile races run out of a chute. Longer races - from 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 miles - are run around two turns, the first of which is a sharp elbow-like bend unique to North American racing.

The course can be divided into five lanes, with the inside lanes usually preserved for the week of major races, such as the Canadian International and Atto Mile.

According to the 2003 Woodbine Handicapper, an unusually dry Toronto summer in 2001 created a hard turf course, which often favored front-runners. The course also seemed to favor speed last year, when there also was a lack of rain. But it played fair from a statistical standpoint, according to the Woodbine Handicapper.

Jim Bannon, co-author of the Woodbine Handicapper with Jim Mazur, pointed out that front-runners and stalkers fared inordinately well on the grass last spring, before closers picked up the slack in July. He also said stalkers and closers were dominant during latter part of the turf season.

Bannon said the way the turf course plays could be related to the time of year.

"I don't know why there was such a preponderance of speed and stalking winners early [last] season," Bannon said. "It might have to do with conditioning. Once horses develop on the turf, by July they're using the style which is most preferable for this course."

Because of the wet spring this year, Bannon predicted that the turf might not be as kind to horses with speed as it was during the early portion of the 2002 season.

"We're probably going to have a different type of summer this year than we had last year," Bannon said. "We had drought conditions last year, but we've started off with a lot of rain this year."

Pedigree handicappers have often been frustrated by the fact that many horses bred strictly for the dirt seem to handle the E.P. Taylor turf course as well as horses with turf pedigrees. Bannon believes the phenomenon relates to the expansive size of the course.

"This is a very atypical turf course," Bannon said. "Even horses who aren't true turf horses will handle it well, because of its contour and probably because of its general quickness. Typical turf horses corner and quicken, but you don't need to have that skill here, because of the big sweeping turns and long stretch.

"Horses can easily leave the turf and win on the dirt, and dirt horses can come to the turf and run well," Bannon added. "There's that transfer back and forth all the time. You don't see that on a true turf course with long grass on it, like the one at Churchill Downs."

According to Bannon, Sky Classic and Storm Creek were the sires whose offspring had the most wins (seven each) on turf here last year. Sires Alphabet Soup and Lost Soldier had six wins apiece.

Todd Kabel rode the most winners on the turf (31) here in 2002, while Patrick Husbands was second with 25.

Bannon believes jockey Jono Jones is worth following on the grass. "I think Jones rides a good race on the turf," he said. "He's one guy that you always know you're going to get a good price on."

Malcolm Pierce led all trainers with 22 grass wins in 2002. Mark Frostad rated next with 18 victories.

Danny Vella and David Bell are two trainers who figure to have a productive turf season this year, according to Bannon.

"Vella has a stable top-heavy with good [Frank Stronach-owned] horses," Bannon said. "I think Bell could have a good year on the turf, the way his horses are training."