12/04/2003 12:00AM

New trend? No need for speed so far

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Heading into the Turfway winter meet, which began Sunday, my handicapping - based on the history and trends of the track - was focused on speed. That focus has shifted.

At the time of this writing, the first two Turfway cards (Sunday, Nov. 30 and Wednesday, Dec. 3) were complete and the results were altogether surprising. Only three of the first 19 races (16 percent) run at Turfway have been won by the leader at the quarter-mile call in sprints or the half-mile call in routes.

That is far off the norm for main-track races, especially for a track with a speed reputation like Turfway. At most tracks the early leader will win at a ballpark rate of around 30 percent on dirt.

Taking into account places and shows, the early leaders at Turfway combined for a 19-3-2-2 record over the meet's first two days. That means 26 percent were among the top two at the finish, and 37 percent were among the top three.

To put those numbers in perspective, I compared them with the record of early leaders at nearby Hoosier Park, another dirt-only track. The same two days were studied, and because the tracks are fairly close to each other, the weather conditions were similar. It warrants mentioning, however, that Hoosier Park was listed as "good" on Sunday, Nov. 30, while Turfway was "fast."

The results could not have been more different at Hoosier, where the early leaders were a combined 20-9-1-2 - 45 percent won, 50 percent were in the top two, and 60 percent hit the board.

Of course, this comparison means very little if the speed horses at Hoosier were favored to win, while those at Turfway were unlikely longshots. But that was not the case. Four of the winners at Hoosier were longshot winners, paying $23.60, $33, $38.20, and $70. The three horses that won on the lead at Turfway paid $3.60, $7, and $10.

Just how poor were bets on front-runners at Turfway? Well, if a bettor was improperly wagering after the start and supporting the early leader, his "edge" would not have been an edge at all. A wager on each of the early leaders at Turfway would have yielded a $2 ROI of $1.08. At Hoosier, it would have returned $9.45.

Unquestionably, the Hoosier ROI appears inflated because of an uncharacteristically high number of longshot winners relative to place and show horses. It would be more accurate, at least in the long run, to view the return on investments relative to places and shows.

In other words, a $2 wager on these speed horses to place would have returned a more "accurate" ROI of $3.87. And a show ROI would have been $3.23. At Turfway, ROI for speed horses to place and show would have yielded $1.21 and $1.09, respectively.

Looking beyond the dollars and cents, two of the three Turfway speed winners, Mauk Me and Prospective Saint, won maiden contests for 2-year-olds, races in which speed horses often break the hearts of the inexperienced horses chasing them. The other wire-to-wire winner was South Christian, who won an entry-level allowance going 6 1/2 furlongs after walking the opening quarter in 23.24 seconds.

All three won sprints. Early leaders did not win any of the six routes contested at Turfway over the first two days. Five of the six winners rallied from sixth or further back after the opening half-mile.

The preferred style in routes was to rally from the middle to rear-half of the pack. Three horses won from more than 9 lengths off the pace, although the pace was fast in those races.

Stalkers and pace-pressing horses were most successful in sprints. Ten of the 13 sprint winners raced within three lengths of the early leader.

One caveat - two days do not make a meet. Trends like these can reverse overnight. If jockeys perceive that speed isn't holding, they may reserve their mounts more in the early stages of a race. This can create slow-paced races that shift the balance of power back in favor of speed horses.

Also, weather conditions change a racing surface from week to week, sometimes day to day. That is particularly true of a racetrack during the winter months in Kentucky.

A winter track like Turfway must deal with rain, snow, freezing temperatures, and thawing-out conditions. It makes it difficult to maintain a fair and safe racing surface. Last year, Turfway canceled 16 full or partial cards, and the weather contributed to a bias at the track on numerous occasions.

This winter, with a new track surface that was installed in July, Turfway officials hope to better handle the weather. The new track showed signs of a speed bias periodically during the fall meet in September, and time will tell how effective the new surface will be over the harsh winter months.

In the meantime, handicappers, like the track surface itself, must adjust to the change in conditions.