07/19/2006 11:00PM

Late speed rules the turf on day one

Lightning Hit (left) was able to come from last to win the first division of Wednesday's Oceanside at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Based on opening day of Del Mar, a horseplayer could arrive at the far-fetched conclusion that every grass race this summer will be won by a closer ridden by jockey Alex Solis.

It is not that simple, of course. But when Solis swept the three grass races Wednesday on horses that delivered strong late kicks, it signaled a subtle shift in Southern California grass racing.

One year ago the Del Mar turf produced lightning-fast times (three course records), and carried speed. Distance-challenged sprinters sprang several front-running upsets, which was contrary to traditional grass racing. What usually matters on turf is not how fast a horse runs early, but rather how fast a horse runs late.

The problem for handicappers is new turf courses that favor speed, and last summer the new Del Mar course rewarded those forwardly placed. It happened again in spring at Hollywood Park, again over a new course. Speed horses were not at a disadvantage.

The mid-July change in venue from Hollywood to Del Mar compels handicappers to reconsider the importance of late speed on grass, even after just one day of racing at Del Mar. And while Solis does not expect to win every grass race this summer, no jockey had better opening-day insight over the year-old course.

"I think it was very fair, to be honest, but I won all three races," Solis said, smiling. "It is a little different from last year. There is more give to it. It's still fast, but I think it's going to be better [than last year]."

All three races were one mile. The $50,000 claimer He's Crafty raced third behind a fast pace and drew off to win race 4 in 1:33.09. Lightning Hit trailed a suicidal pace and won the first division of the Oceanside Stakes for 3-year-olds in 1:34.12; Obrigado rallied from sixth in the second division, winning in 1:34.20.

Solis said the course "has a nice cushion; horses seem to glide over it. I think the best horses are probably going to win."

None was a total surprise. Comeback dropper He's Crafty ($7) was favored; Lightning Hit ($9.20) and Obrigado ($14) were the third choices in respective divisions of the Oceanside. Both beaten favorites in the Oceanside finished second, and it was comforting that turf horses could close ground on the first day of the meet. Solis noted the change from the last time the circuit moved - from Santa Anita to Hollywood back in April.

"At the beginning of the meet at Hollywood, the turf was very hard," Solis said. "They did a great job to get it back to normal, and at the end of the meet it was a very good course."

Jockey Victor Espinoza finished second in the three turf races Wednesday, and other than finish position, he had no complaints about the course.

"I think it's better this year," Espinoza said, adding "it's a little bit firm. With a little bit of water, it would be perfect."

Espinoza agrees with Solis that the course is fair, and cites as evidence the runner-up finish by favorite One Union in race 6.

"The fractions were very fast, and I almost won the race," he said. "I think you can come from behind, too. Either way, it's fair."

One Union set a blistering pace - an opening half in 44.89 seconds, six furlongs in 1:09.48. Despite the pressure, One Union opened up in midstretch, but got collared. His running style got him beat, and trainer Richard Mandella said One Union would return to dirt.

"With grass racing, you have to be professional," Mandella said. "He'll get better as he gets older."

Following a blazing sub-45 first half, the second half went in 49.23. The fast-early, slow-late tempo might be expected on dirt, but not in a turf stakes.

It means the last-to-first victory by Lightning Hit was largely the result of the pacesetters dying home. Despite a faster final time (1:34.12 compared with 1:34.20), the first division of the Oceanside was not as strong as the second division.

The opening half of race 8 went in a tepid 47.18; the second half sped up and went in 47.08. Despite the pace, one-two finishers Obrigado and Porto Santo rallied from sixth and eighth, respectively. Both were bothered when New Joysey Jeff lugged out sharply in midstretch, yet Obrigado raced the final quarter in about 22.60; Porto Santo went the final quarter in about 22.40.

Notwithstanding a head loss at odds of 4-5, Porto Santo ran a better race. He broke slowly, which is a tendency by French imports, raced wide, and flew home. The runner-up effort was the best turf performance on the opening-day card.

While the course produced three stretch-running winners, things change in a hurry at Del Mar. The rails were down Wednesday, and the course was at its widest. When the temporary rails are up, the course gets narrow, and there is less movement from the back.

"It makes it a lot of difference," Solis said. "It is a narrow track already, at seven furlongs, and it makes it harder when you put the rails out. We have to wait and see."

The first week of the meet, one conspicuous trend may have emerged. On the Del Mar turf course this summer, perhaps late speed is the best speed.