06/30/2005 12:00AM

A look at front-runners on turf

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Four-Footed Fotos
Delta Princess wins the Mint Julep, and will be tough again Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Some horseplayers look for speed to hold better on turf when the inside rail is placed out from the hedge, believing that a wider circumference to the course and a shorter stretch favor the front-runners.

This meet at Churchill Downs, the opposite has been true. Through Wednesday, early leaders when the rail was out in turf routes had won approximately 21 percent of their races. Early leaders in races on the hedge had won 26 percent of the time.

The average winner of a turf race on the hedge also sat slightly closer to the pace. The 31 turf route winners in races on the hedge raced an average of three lengths off the pace after a quarter-mile, compared with a 3.3-length margin for the average winner in 38 races when the rail was placed out.

Just as with horses on the main track, easy leads helped carry longshots to victory - irrespective of where the rail was placed. But the biggest winning turf longshots were those who got loose racing on the hedge. Wire-to-wire winners Earths Vain Shadow and Justakiss each scored upsets at 47-1 when turf racing took place on the hedge.

It's anyone's guess why front-runners might fare a bit better on the hedge then when the rail is out. One reason might be the condition of the course. Churchill, like most if not all tracks across the country, places the rail out at times to protect the inner portion of its course, which the track likes to save for stakes and important weekend racing.

When the rail has been used this meet at Churchill, it has been placed either 15 feet or 22 feet out from the hedge. The win rate for front-runners has been nearly identical from both placings.

As a result of the rail being placed out, the inner portion of the course is less worn when the rail eventually comes down. The front-runners, having the speed to secure a good running position, typically are racing on this portion of the course.

Another explanation for speed holding on the hedge might be attributed to the caliber of the races. Because Churchill usually runs its stakes and better weekend races on the hedge, the hedge races in this sample are of higher quality than the races run when the rail is out. An early lead might simply be more advantageous to a classier runner.

Bear in mind that this bias toward front-runners on the hedge is minimal. About three-quarters of the winners still are coming from off the pace in turf routes. The placement of the turf rail is far down on the list of important factors, though it is one factor to consider. An analysis of class, pace, and turn of foot remains of foremost importance.

Delta Princess will run them all down

Saturday's Locust Grove at Churchill, a 1 1/8-mile turf race, shapes up without an established front-runner - just as the Mint Julep did a month ago. This plays right into the strength of the late-running Delta Princess, who is most effective in slow-paced races that turn into tests of who can quicken most effectively.

Defending champion Shaconage seems the mare most likely to make the front, but if she makes the lead, it will only be by default. She seems to prefer racing from behind a target.

Katdogawn could also end up forwardly placed, although with the patient Pat Day in the saddle, it seems unlikely she will be hustled early. She has the most extensive graded stakes experience, but took the worst of the weight assignments at 121 pounds. She carries two pounds more than Delta Princess, who finished five lengths in front of her at equal weights when they raced behind Intercontinental in the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland in April.

Delta Princess can run them down. Two of her last three victories came from off the pace, even after the leader went the opening half in over 49 seconds. She is inexperienced at the 1 1/8-mile distance, but nothing about her style or pedigree suggests she will lose anything with the stretchout from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles.

Justice for Auston will be fit

The two other grass races on Saturday's card are competitive five-furlong turf dashes. I found the first of them, the second race, the more intriguing of the pair.

Justice for Auston, a horse unraced since the fall, shows just one published work leading up to this $50,000 claiming race - which may cause some to question his fitness.

I'm expecting him to be ready. He came to Churchill last spring with a similarly sketchy work tab and showed no signs of rust, winning in $62,500 company. He then won again over optional claimers.