04/12/2007 12:00AM

Keeneland surface rewards versatility

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Late in a race meet, after a turf course has been chopped to bits by extensive racing, handicappers will sometimes refer to the grass as "turf/dirt."

Dirt and sand, almost more so than turf, can be seen flying through the air as the horses thunder around the track. And the horses handling the footing are sometimes not the same animals that excelled over the course when it was not littered with holes.

The "turf/dirt" becomes a "tweener" surface - something between turf and dirt. Grass horses that are particular about the courses they prefer typically do not fare as well over it, and on the flip side, dirt horses seem to take to it a little more than they did when it was lush and more tiring.

Similarly, the synthetic Polytrack surface at Keeneland is currently playing like a "tweener" surface. It is fast like a dirt track, but the Keeneland races have developed like turf races with slow early splits, making late quickening ability a tremendous strength.

As a result, versatile horses have been among the most successful runners during the first few days of the Keeneland meet. Those that have shown skill on both dirt and turf have flourished, a trend I expect will continue.

Focusing on this angle, I like several horses on Saturday's card at Keeneland, including longshot River City Rebel in the Grade 2 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup, in great part because of versatility.

A 4-year-old gelded son of Sahm, he comes off a fast second-level allowance win at Aqueduct, a six-length victory that earned him a 102 Beyer Speed Figure.

But that is not the reason why I am encouraged about his chances in the Commonwealth. I like him because he has won on Polytrack, turf, and dirt - indicating he is a horse that doesn't need a certain kind of racetrack to be successful.

How important is that versatility? As I am writing this, following the sixth race at Keeneland on Thursday, 24 horses had started this meet on Polytrack that had won on turf and over a fast dirt track at some stage in their careers. Of that group, 5 won, 7 ran second, and 5 more ran third.

Four of the five winners started at odds of 9-2 or greater, and several big longshots ran second, including Natural Beauty, who ran second at 44-1 odds in Wednesday's sixth race at Keeneland.

Admittedly, a sample of 24 races is small, but the numbers are highly favorable at this early stage of the meet.

Seeking to capitalize on this angle, here are the horses I plan to support Saturday at Keeneland:

* Eighth race (Commonwealth Breeders' Cup): River City Rebel.

River City Rebel looms a live longshot, one that should perform much better than his 15-1 morning-line odds might suggest. Not that he is a can't-lose winner - he's not.

He has never won a stakes race, and he is facing a group of bears in this seven-furlong race, including Midnight Lute, who easily won Grade 3 Perryville Stakes at Keeneland last fall in his only start on Polytrack.

River City Rebel is not the only Commonwealth entrant that has won on turf and on a fast dirt track. So have Gin N Sin and Lewis Michael - other longshots worth consideration in this wide-open race.

I prefer River City Rebel to those two. I believe he can get a great stalking trip under Julien Leparoux, and quicken down the stretch.

* Seventh race: Reverential.

Heading into March, Reverential had made 8 of 12 starts on turf, and seemed best on that surface. A month and a half later, that no longer appears to be the case.

After running fourth at Fair Grounds on March 1 in a 5 1/2-furlong dirt allowance, he came back to win a second-level allowance on dirt March 17 at Oaklawn, running six furlongs in 1:10.88 and earning a 91 Beyer.

He is stepping up in class to face third-level allowance runners at Keeneland, and some might expect him to regress. Not me.

Having won on turf and dirt, he fits the profile of a versatile horse that should take to the Polytrack surface. His expected price is also appealing. He is 6-1 on the morning line.

Esprit Du Roi is another in this race with wins on turf and dirt. He also has won over the Polytrack at Turfway.

* First race: Cointreau.

Three horses in the opener have won on turf and over a fast main track - Flirt With Fortune, Golden Glen, and Cointreau.

Of those, I like Cointreau most. He easily won a $25,000 claimer at Keeneland over Polytrack last fall, and has done well on turf in three starts since.

He is drawn on the outside in post 9 in this $50,000 claiming race, but wide trips have not proven as costly over Polytrack as over turf and dirt.