06/22/2004 11:00PM

Scrutinize that ol' turf-to-dirt angle

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LAS VEGAS - Turf to dirt. It's a catchy phrase, full of significance, or so some handicappers tell us. But once you get past the initial sound of the words, what do they really mean?

We see plenty of horses who run on the turf and then on the dirt. For example, we have many races taken off the grass and switched to the dirt track. But a professional grass horse being forced to run his next race on the dirt is definitely not what the advocates mean by turf to dirt. They mean that, for your average struggling dirt horse who switches to the grass for one or more races, the return to the dirt often brings dramatic improvement in performance - presumably from a boost in conditioning or some such thing. They advise us to factor in possible improvement when the horse runs his next dirt race.

Whether a trainer goes dirt-to-turf-to-dirt with the specific objective of improving a horse's performance; or the trainer is just desperate to find out if his underperforming dirt horse will suddenly show some life on the grass; or he's simply running his grass horse on the dirt because there's no upcoming turf race that fits his horse's distance and class - all of these issues touch on a trainer's motives and intentions, a very murky subject, indeed.

But if you're going to study the impact of the turf-to-dirt switch, you would have to make some decisions about just what subset of runners you'll include. And before anyone could accept the validity of any such study, you would certainly want to know precisely how the sample was chosen: which horses were included, and which were not - and what were the criteria used to make these choices. And until I see such a convincing study, I'm afraid the phrase turf to dirt will have to remain among those canards of racing - such concepts as "key race" or "good grass rider" - that just don't prove very helpful in the complicated, multi-variable world of Thoroughbred handicapping.

Still, we often face the problem of dealing with horses switching from turf to dirt. Here are a few recent, revealing cases:

Miss Baba: As a rule, you do not want to bet on a horse with good recent grass form when he switches to the dirt. You don't ever want to make the amateurish mistake of assuming good grass form will translate into good dirt form. But Miss Baba was an exception. Her grass form wasn't all that strong, although she showed a level of talent and Beyer Speed Figures way beyond the field she was facing in last Friday's first race at Belmont.

In addition, while she had only raced once on the dirt, that race was her debut and was obviously intended as a prep for her subsequent grass career. Her breeding looked at least as strong for dirt as for turf, and she was 5-1 in an extremely weak maiden off-the-turf field. She won easily, wire to wire.

Paisley Park: This filly's four most recent races were all on the grass. After a six-week layoff she had run a big Beyer of 85 on the grass, then bounced to a 63, and improved to a 71 in her last race. Continued improvement would make her a solid play in last Friday's eighth race at Monmouth. She had cycled in precisely this manner twice before in her recent history. But now she was switching to the dirt. Fortunately, she had shown last fall and winter that she could handle the dirt at least as well as the turf. Her Beyer Figures, in fact, were remarkably similar on both surfaces. At odds of 7-2, she was blocked badly until midstretch and then drew off to an easy win.

Tuesday Morning: In last Friday's fifth race at Belmont, this 3-year-old filly made her fifth lifetime start. She looked like the lone speed on a day when speed seemed to be holding on very well. She had run very strongly on the grass in her most recent race and now had to switch back to the dirt when her race was taken off the grass. Superficially, her Beyer Figure for her lone grass race was much better than her efforts on the dirt, but a deeper look showed that she had earned a decent 60 Beyer in a dirt sprint way back in September of her 2-year-old season. So her credentials for the dirt looked okay. And the field she was facing was not very strong. She wired the field without any trouble at odds of 9-2.

General Tommy: This 3-year-old colt had earned a 67 Beyer in a route race at Pimlico on April 8, then bounced down to a 49, and followed that with a poor effort on the grass in his most recent race. Now he was shipping to Delaware, turning back to six furlongs, and switching from turf to dirt. There were a few first-time starters in this race, the fifth race last Saturday, and a strong contender with an 82 Beyer in his last race - but that horse looked like a strong candidate for a bounce. If General Tommy's grass race could be seen as merely an interruption in his cycle back to a good effort, he could be worth a bet at 7-1 odds. But it was hard to pull the trigger on this one, since General Tommy had earned his best Beyer while loose on the lead around two turns and there was another speed horse inside him in this sprint. Fortunately for him, the other speed declined to go for the lead and so General Tommy was able to clear the field. He won and paid $17.80.

These examples show that you can certainly use ordinary, everyday logic and traditional handicapping tools to make a case for horses shifting from grass to dirt. And you can do it profitably without any magical incantations about that so-called turf-to-dirt angle we hear so much about.