06/14/2007 11:00PM

Grass sprints become tiring


NEW YORK - Be careful what you wish for.

Turf sprints used to be nearly as rare as triple dead heats in New York racing, run only as an occasional summer novelty even as they proliferated elsewhere. Horseplayers frequently asked why there couldn't be at least a few more, since they were often entertaining and wide-open affairs with close finishes and longshot possibilities. Until recently, management's standard response was that such races had to be carded sparingly to keep the turf course from being chewed up, which made little sense.

Then last year, as a gradual shift in the local horse population resulted in fewer available dirt claiming horses and a surfeit of statebred maidens, race conditions began to change and expand in New York. P.J. Campo, racing secretary for the New York Racing Association tracks, began creatively reshaping the condition book in an attempt to get bigger fields from the available horses. Turf sprints began popping up more and more at Belmont, and even made their way into the regular rotation at Saratoga last summer. Maiden turf sprints, especially for the burgeoning statebred demographic, became yet another option for trainers to try before giving up on horses who couldn't win on the dirt or stretch out in distance on grass.

Soon, trainers began asking Campo to card turf sprints for every division, and they have become staples at Belmont this spring, not only for maidens but also for $35,000 claimers and open and statebred first- and second-level allowance races. There were 22 turf sprints during the first 20 cards at Belmont this year, nine of them over four consecutive cards in mid-May alone. They have popped up on opening day, on Belmont Stakes Day, and been part of every multiple-carryover pick six card, including two in Friday's sequence that began with a two-day $179,417 carryover.

Perhaps somewhere, some reclusive genius has found the key to beating these races, but the public in general (and this horseplayer in particular) seem flummoxed by them. Lukewarm favorites vastly outnumber the odds-on variety, reflecting the crowd's confusion, and roughly a third of the winning mutuels so far at the meet have been $25 or higher, including Snowstalker ($52.50), Ecclesiastic ($50, Pangburn ($49.80), and Panicking Petunia ($48.80). Horses can blitz the field on the lead, rally from far back, and both dirt failures and turf-bred firsters seem to take turns winning the maiden races. Speed figures are helpful but sometimes compromised by soft paces and uncertainty about the true speed of the course on days when there is a lone turf sprint on the card.

What remains to be seen is whether turf sprinting will ever become an important division at the top of the game. A proposal to consider an Eclipse Award in the division received little serious support, given that there are only a handful of graded turf-sprint stakes, and none above the Grade 3 level. There is probably an opportunity for some track or sponsor to create some fall races that might even attract a few top European sprinters, who have never had the opportunity to try transferring their foreign form to an American turf sprint.

In the meantime, more than a few of the New York horseplayers who used to pine for more turf sprints are now pining for fewer.

A little elbow room a big plus

Speaking of too much of a good thing, is it possible that massive turnouts for the Triple Crown bids of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones a few years ago may have hurt rather than helped attendance at subsequent editions of the race?

This year's turnout of 46,870, the lowest in a decade, was surprisingly thin given perfect weather and the presence of Rags to Riches. This was bad for the house but good for those who did attend: You could get on line for a hot dog or an exacta with two minutes to post without getting shut out. The dominant chatter was about how surprisingly pleasant a day at the track it was for a major event.

Most of the hordes who turned out amid the six-digit crowds of 2003 and 2004 probably weren't coming back to Belmont until another Crown was on the line anyway, but the next person who says he had an enjoyable day at the track for those events will be the first. Horrific episodes of traffic and cargo-style train travel were enough to discourage almost anyone from returning, even though any other day of the year offers a far more appealing experience.

It's a little bit like the old Yogi Berra line about a popular restaurant: "Nobody goes there any more - it's too crowded."