02/12/2005 1:00AM

Rizzi Girl tough on her turf


OLDSMAR Fla. - If there were ever a "horse for the course," it's Rizzi Girl over the Tampa Bay turf. This season she's 2 for 3 over the grass here, and she was unlucky not to win her other start when she finished second, beaten a head. From 13 starts over the local turf, she has won 5 races and finished second 6 times.

"I wish I could tell you why she loves this course but I can't," said her trainer, William "Radio" Downing. "She's a very high-strung mare and totally unpredictable in the mornings. She's not vicious or anything like that, but she's just subject to go off at the drop of a hat. You have to keep your eye on her at all times.

"Oddly enough, she's pretty calm when she's racing, but in the morning, it's another story."

Last Tuesday, all of the ingredients were in place for Rizzi Girl to be beaten as the 6-5 favorite. The field was small, the pace was pedestrian, and a rival cut the corner and got through along the rail to lead into the final furlong. But just when it looked like Rizzi Girl would go down to defeat, she dropped her head in the final sixteenth and powered home for a 1 1/4-length victory. She is the current leader by points in the female division of the Tampa Turf Test starter series.

"When we claimed her two years back, she had been a horse who liked to be up front, leading or pressing the pace, and we thought if we could get her to take back and save something for the end she'd get more out of her talent," Downing said. "Once she learned to drop back and relax early she really turned into a nice mare."

Rizzi Girl's victory was one of two trips to the winner's circle for Downing on Tuesday. Hi Time Scott, a recent $8,000 claim, turned more than a few heads when he blew past the leaders entering the stretch and went on to post a convincing six-length win against $12,500 claiming sprinters in the fifth race, which immediately preceded Rizzi Girl's win. Hi Time Scott covered the six furlongs in a dazzling 1:10.65, one of the faster clockings of the meeting.

"He looks like a horse we can have some fun with," Downing said. "He had some issues that needed addressing when we caught him, but he's coming around nicely. I think he's got some potential, but time will tell."

Downing has suffered the ups and downs of the business, once training a large string for an owner who had legal problems that forced the dispersal of those horses. He now has a five-horse stable. Owners Joshua and Marnie Whitney are friends as well as patrons.

"Now, if we had a barn full of Rizzi Girls, life would really be great," Downing joked.

Handle up 10 percent; purses rise

Strong business has resulted in a recently announced 7 percent increase in overnight purses. Overnight purse payouts will now average $122,000, with an overall purse average, including stakes, of $140,000.

"Our commingled handle is up 10 percent, which is the main reason for the purse increase," said the track's track general manager, Peter Berube.

The average daily handle is now $3.1 million per day, compared with last year's average of $2.8 million.