06/22/2006 12:00AM

Getting a handle on turf sprints


ELMONT, N.Y. - Turf sprints were little more than a novelty in New York for a long time. For decades they were pretty much limited to the annual running of the Jaipur Handicap (provided it wasn't rained off) and 2-year-olds prepping for routes at Saratoga during the dog days of mid-July.

Turf sprints were introduced at the Spa for the first time last summer, and they have become a staple on the circuit since the grass season began in earnest at Belmont in early May, so much so that four were carded last weekend alone. Through the meet's first seven weeks, no fewer than 17 turf sprints were run. All 14 races on the inner course were at six furlongs; on the Widener (outer) course, there were two races at six furlongs and one at seven furlongs.

On the face of it, turf sprints would seem to be a tough nut for New York bettors to crack, and for a number of reasons: They still have relatively little experience with this type of race; the average field size has been large, 9.52 starters, including nine fields of 10 or more; and the make-up of the fields can be a motley collection of sprinters who haven't been winning on dirt, routers who haven't been winning on turf, or experienced turf sprinters from out of town, to say nothing of the first-time starters in the six maiden special weight races run thus far.

And yet, amazingly, John Q. Punter has gotten it right more than half the time. Favorites won 9 of the first 17 turf sprints, a win rate of 53 percent, and only three winners went off at better than 4-1.

Admittedly, it is still very early in the game, but here are some preliminary observations about turf sprints:

1) Layoffs are okay. If you are considering a horse in a turf sprint that has been inactive, go ahead and make the play if encouraging signs are present such as good layoff stats for the trainer, a strong series of workouts, or past good races off the bench by the horse in question. Five of the 17 winners were making their first start of the year, and another had not run in nearly three months.

2) Insofar as running styles and pedigree are concerned, the accent in turf sprints is on "sprint."

The 17 turf sprint winners had 17 different sires, the majority of whom are regarded as sires of dirt sprinter-miler types - such sires as Abaginone, Forest Wildcat, Good and Tough, City Zip, and Carson City. Others such as Numerous and Unaccounted For are mainly dirt sires. A couple, Grand Slam and Belong to Me, are regarded as being equally strong turf or dirt. The only sire among the sample who would make anyone's list of top turf sires is Lemon Drop Kid, whose Lemon Drop Gal ($19.20) was one of the three winners above 4-1.

Focusing on the 16 turf races at six furlongs, here are some specifics about running style:

* Three winners led wire to wire.

* Early pace horses, defined as those in the top three and within two lengths of the winner at the first call, won 11 of the 16 races.

* Only two winners were able to overcome an early deficit of four or five lengths: Keen Spirit ($38.80), the longest-priced winner in the sample who prevailed in a four-way photo, and Not Phone ($4.10), who enjoyed a rail-skimming trip en route to setting a course record (which has since been lowered twice).

* None of the 17 winners was more than five lengths from the lead at any point.

This data paints a profile that looks more like dirt sprints than anything else, and nothing at all like the typical profile for turf routers.

Among trainers, Linda Rice is the only one to have saddled two winners - Metro Meteor ($7.60) and Mohegan Sky ($3.50) - both favorites. Fifteen other trainers are tied with one.