05/24/2005 11:00PM

Ins and outs of Woodbine turf racing

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ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Grass racing recently returned to Woodbine, which means full, intriguing, and sometimes indecipherable fields.

The European-style E.P. Taylor turf course, which encircles the main track, is 1 1/2 miles in circumference and its stretch, at 1,440 feet, is the longest of any track's on the continent.

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

The course can be divided into five lanes, with the innermost lane saved primarily for major stakes, such as the Atto Mile and the Canadian International.

A dry summer helps create a hard course, which often favors front-runners. In fact, speed is usually the dominant style on this course whenever dry conditions occur for any length of time.

According to the 2005 edition of Jim Mazur's informative publication, "Winning at Woodbine," horses running in a stalking position (within four lengths of the lead, but not on the lead, at the two main call points) fared the best in turf sprints here from 2002 to 2004.

At six furlongs, stalkers won at a 44 percent clip, compared to 39 percent for front-runners and 17 percent for closers. Stalkers won at a 43 percent rate at 6 1/2 furlongs, compared to 30 percent for front-runners and 27 percent for late-runners.

Closers were much more effective at seven furlongs, winning 38 percent of the races, compared to 40 percent for stalkers and 22 percent for front-runners.

Front-runners had a win average of around 22 percent at nearly all distances from a mile to 1 1/2 miles in 2002-04. Stalkers won at better than a 40 percent clip at the majority of distances of one mile or longer. Closers were the most effective at a mile and 1 1/8 miles (42 percent win rate) and 1 1/2 miles (41 percent), but they won at just a 29 percent rate going 1 3/8 miles.

Post 1 was easily the best post position in the 6 1/2-furlong turf dashes in 2002-04, with 17 percent winners. At seven furlongs, post 8 led the way with a 16 percent win average. Posts 9 though 14 had low success rates at seven furlongs, one mile, and distances over a mile.

Pedigree handicappers have often been frustrated by the fact that many horses bred strictly for the dirt seem to handle the Taylor turf as well as horses with grass pedigrees. Some sires whose offspring win with regularity over the course are Smart Strike, Sky Classic, Regal Classic, Alphabet Soup, Lost Soldier, Langfuhr, and Wild Zone.

Ontario sires that bear watching when their offspring try the grass in restricted races include Ascot Knight, Bold n' Flashy, Highland Ruckus, Bold Executive, Tethra, Compadre, Kiridashi, and freshman sire Perigee Moon.

Meanwhile, the in-house TV coverage of Woodbine's turf races has been a nightmare for horseplayers trying to follow runners in the back half or so of large fields.

In most of the turf races run last week, half of the field disappeared from the TV monitors the moment the camera coverage switched from a split screen that includes a wide pan shot of the field to a single shot on the turn, which shows only the leaders. That's often an important stage of a race, when the closers are starting to make their moves, and it would be nice to be able to see them.

Woodbine's grass races are hard to watch live, even with binoculars, because the backstretch and the far turn are extremely far away from the grandstand. Showing all the horses throughout the far turn, or at least as many as possible, should be a standard part of the TV coverage here.