12/26/2001 1:00AM

Give turn-back sprinters an extra look


Here's an old-time angle that always made sense to me: a sprinter, especially a speed horse, turning back from a less-than-successful effort at seven furlongs to the more comfortable distance of six furlongs. These horses generally benefit from increased stamina, or "bottom," when they return to the less-draining three-quarters of a mile.

This angle always sounded logical to me, and it actually gave me a good winner about two weeks ago. Shortly after that, on Dec. 15 at Laurel, I came across a field of solid optional claiming sprinters. It was loaded with horses who had this turn-back angle buried back in their form.

Six of them had run a seven-furlong race, followed by a turn back to six or 5 1/2 furlongs. Five out of the six had improved their Beyers in their next start (by 3, 4, 7, 10, and 16 points), and only one had declined, from a 98 to a 93. And in that six-furlong race on Dec. 15, there were three horses turning back from a seven-furlong effort in their previous start. Two of them ran higher Beyers that day (by 7 and 16 points) and one ran lower (by 7 points).

A few days later, on Dec. 19, this angle figured prominently once again in three six-furlong races:

* Aqueduct, fourth race: Three horses were turning back from a recent seven-furlong race. Wooden Stone, who had run in a seven-furlong race after a two-month layoff, won. Moonshadow Gold, who had the look of a confirmed six-furlong runner, finished second. He had made a three-wide move at seven furlongs in his previous race. Exacta: $74.50.

* Laurel, fifth race: Four horses were turning back from seven furlongs. They finished one-two-four. Exacta: $60.80.

* Calder, fifth race: The obvious favorite, Whateveryouwant, turned back from seven furlongs, and won. Three others also were coming off a seven-furlong race. One of them, Murray's D. J., finished second at 22-1.

Finally, last Saturday's first race at Laurel convinced me that I should look into this angle more systematically. In a $14,000 maiden claimer, a horse named Southwell had one seven-furlong race after a nine-week layoff. She had a wide trip in that race, was now getting Lasix for the first time, and faced a very weak field. She won by a nose at 23-1.

Were all these results just a series of coincidences, or was there something solid here that could be useful in analyzing sprints? In order to answer these questions I spent part of the brief Christmas break searching through recent Daily Racing Forms, accumulating some objective, longer-term data on seven-furlong turn-backs. I logged the Beyer Figures of every horse who, within a month, had turned back from seven furlongs to six or 5 1/2 in his next race. The sample included 994 horses. Here are the results: 35 ran the same figure on the turn-back; 147 improved by 1 to 5 points; 123 declined by 1 to 5 points; 149 improved by 6 to 10 points; 114 declined by 6 to 10 points; 140 improved by 10 to 20 points; 108 declined by 10 to 20 points.

Most dramatically, 131 horses improved by more than 20 points in their next start. Only 47 declined by more than 20 points.

I made three basic conclusions. First, more horses run faster Beyers than slower Beyers when they turn back from seven furlongs to a shorter sprint. But in most categories the improvement is not statistically significant enough to be of any use as a strong handicapping tool.

Second, at the extremes the picture is quite different. Very often a sprinter who runs a big Beyer Figure at seven furlongs will experience a bigger bounce than most horses not turning back from seven furlongs. Nearly all the horses who declined by more than 20 points on the turn-back bounced off a big Beyer earned at the more stressful distance of seven furlongs.

Third, for a six-furlong horse that final eighth of a mile in a seven-furlong race can quickly degenerate into an exhausting, headlong retreat - especially after a tough trip. Losses by 10, 20, or even 30 lengths are not uncommon, and often these losses are not nearly as bad as they look on paper. These horses can improve dramatically when they turn back to a less demanding distance, and often at big prices.

Which brings me to Forbidissi Is Easy. Last Sunday at Calder this 2-year-old filly won as the longest price (11-1) in a field of six maiden claimers. She had tired badly in her previous race, at seven furlongs, after setting a fast pace. But on the turn-back last Sunday, she sat a bit off the pace, moved effortlessly around the dueling speed horses on the turn, and drew off to win with something left.

Of course, you could argue that she won because the trainer is hot. Or because he took the blinkers off, resulting in a change of tactics. Or because she was dropping from a maiden special weight race. Or that she had had tough trips, and that sloppy tracks and a turf race had darkened her form. All of this could be true. But I'd like to think that the turn-back from seven furlongs had a lot to do with her dramatic turnaround.