12/30/2005 12:00AM

This just in: Speed is key on turf, too

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In Sunday's Tropical Park Oaks, Stolen Prayer is the filly with the most early speed - which by itself makes her a play at a square price.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Contrary to what most handicappers believe, early speed is an advantage in turf races at most distances at most tracks. In gathering the research data for my book, "The Power of Early Speed," I was surprised to see how dramatically different the win percentages of first-call leaders can be from one turf distance to another at each track.

Let's take a look at turf racing at Calder. Would you like to double your money over the long run? If you can spot the early leader in five-furlong sprints there, you will cash win tickets nearly 38 percent of the time, with a $4.03 return on investment. The win percentage of speed horses at most of the other commonly run distances there is around 18 percent, with ROI's ranging from $2.51 to $3.39. The lowest-rated distance for early speed is 1 1/16 miles, at which early leaders win nearly 14 percent of the races, with a $2.40 ROI.

That makes the handicapping of Sunday's Tropical Park Oaks and Tropical Park Derby, both run at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, an interesting challenge. Yes, I wish those races were run at a distance that would offer a higher win percentage and ROI for the early leader, but there is no reason to be greedy. Most bettors would love to have a $2.40 ROI on all of their bets, so I will be happy to settle for "only" a 20 percent long-term profit.

The filly to beat in the Oaks is J'ray. She is unbeaten in three turf starts, all run at 1 1/16 miles. The Beyer Speed Figures she earned in her victories in the Jessamine County at Keeneland and the Selima Stakes at Laurel give her an advantage of at least 7 points over the best turf form her rivals have displayed. If you are looking for another reason to like her, she is trained by Todd Pletcher. Despite those advantages, value-oriented bettors should note that she probably will be a small price, and it is a concern that she was in the rear half of her field at the first call in all four of her starts.

The filly with the most early speed is Stolen Prayer. She led at the first call in five of her six career starts. Two races ago she carved out a much faster-than-par 21.44- and 44.61-second pace en route to a second-place finish in a seven-furlong race on the dirt. Don't worry about her willingness to ration her speed at this distance: In her last race, the $100,000 Three Ring at Calder, when she won after being up close in second through a 24.10 and 49.51 pace. Although she has never raced on the turf, her 265 turf Tomlinson (from a small data sample) suggests that she deserves the benefit of the doubt. I will box J'Ray with Stolen Prayer in the exacta, and I will take what I hope is a square price in the win pool on Stolen Prayer.

Barbaro looms as the horse to beat in the Tropical Park Derby. He beat maiden specials going a mile on the turf at Delaware by 8 1/2 lengths in his debut, then won the Laurel Futurity by eight lengths with a 102 Beyer second time out.

Yankee Master also figures as a major player. He graduated at first asking in a one-mile maiden special at Belmont, then scored by five lengths in the Bourbon County at Keeneland. He regressed when he was beaten by a head as the 7-10 choice last time in his first race at Calder, but he is capable of winning this race with a rebound.

The likely speed is Mr. Silver. He led most of the way and weakened late on Dec. 10, finishing 1 1/4 lengths behind Yankee Master. A little improvement in the third race of his form cycle and a favorable pace scenario could enable Mr. Silver to participate in the exotics. I will box him in the exacta with Barbaro and Yankee Master.