05/26/2004 11:00PM

Shoemaker quandary: Fastest or classiest?

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Are they running downhill on the turf course at Hollywood Park? One might wonder, based on the searing final times the first five weeks of the spring-summer meet.

The tone was set opening day April 21, when Dell Place blazed a mile in 1:33.07 to win a three-other-than allowance. The heat has continued - six of the 15 turf races at one mile were run in 1:33-and-change.

The fast clockings have persisted at longer distances. On May 1, Leroidesanimaux smashed the course record for a 1 1/16 miles by a smoking 1:38.45 in a Grade 3. It has become routine - nine of the 23 turf races at 1 1/16 miles were run in under 1:41.

No doubt, it has been a bizarre spring on the Hollywood turf. The handicapping puzzle is considering the effect of the lightning-fast course Monday, when the first Grade 1 turf races of the 2004 California season are run, including the Shoemaker Mile. Does it make any difference that the race will be run over a souped-up surface?

It means something to the people behind the Shoemaker starters. Don Chatlos trains Grade 2 winner Singletary, who has a penchant for fast footing. Chatlos said Singletary "likes his feet rattling under him; hopefully it'll be nice and hard on Monday, like it's been for the whole meet."

Singletary was an honest front-runner last year, good enough to win a Grade 3 against 3-year-olds and earn more than $200,000. This season, Chatlos trained Singletary to harness his speed. "Changing his style helped him a lot - [to] relax and finish," the trainer said.

Singletary won a minor stakes in February, finished second in a Grade 2 in March, and won a Grade 2 in April.

The fact that Singletary changed his style does not hinder his chances, although handicappers often mistakenly equate fast footing with a speed bias. The perception does not match reality. Closers do win on Hollywood turf; it is wrong to suggest that stretch-runners Dell Place or King of Happiness are compromised because the course is fast. They may be unproven at the class level, but running style will not get them beat. On grass, there are more important considerations than speed figures or course profile.

"A lot of turf racing is positioning, and who gets the first jump, and who gets stuck," said Neil Drysdale, who trains King of Happiness. "You need acceleration in turf races."

King of Happiness has plenty. He rallied from the back of the field to win two of his first three U.S. starts, and is likely to use a similar style Monday. The potential knock on King of Happiness pertains to class. A Group 3 winner in Europe, his four U.S. starts have been in condition allowance races.

Dell Place faces a similar problem. He faced graded stakes foes only once, and was drilled. It is true that Dell Place ran fast on opening day, but the rapid time was the byproduct of the meet's fastest fractions - 45.49 and 1:09.18. Dell Place won from 11 lengths behind. He took advantage of circumstances, competition, and footing. It was no surprise to trainer Mike Mitchell.

"When Tom Proctor sold me [Dell Place], he said this horse wants to run on pavement," Mitchell recalled. Dell Place's chances in the Shoemaker, according to Mitchell, may depend on "how hard the turf course is on Monday. The harder, the better."

Dell Place is training extremely well, and few will criticize Mitchell for taking a Grade 1 shot with a sharp allowance horse. However, it's a quantum leap in class from N3X to Grade 1. Here is where horseplayers and horsemen part. The mere fact a trainer likes his horse - because of workouts or surface - is insufficient reason for a logical handicapper to support Dell Place to win.

As a general rule, fast times are not reason enough to back a horse in a high-class turf race. Grade 1 turf races typically are won by horses that have proven themselves against Grade 1 company. The notion will be tested to the extreme on Monday, when two Shoemaker starters move up after superb Grade 3 wins that earned sky-high 110 Beyer Speed Figures. Glick won a Grade 3 sprint April 18 at Santa Anita; Leroidesanimaux won a Grade 3 route May 1 at Hollywood.

The 110 Beyers qualify both to win the $350,000-added Shoemaker, which became a spring meet highlight when the purse was quadrupled seven years ago. Over that time, the median winning Beyer is 109. Bettors therefore must decide how much emphasis to put on the lofty 110's that Glick and Leroidesanimaux earned against lesser company.

The last six Shoemaker winners include four previous Grade 1 winners; two others previously had won a Grade 2 in the U.S., or a Group 3 in Europe. The perceived class deficiency does not automatically disqualify Glick or Leroidesanimaux. Both are razor-sharp horses with a strike against them. On grass, class supersedes speed.

Ultimately, the speed of the turf course is not expected to significantly affect the Shoemaker. Four of the 15 mile turf races this meet were won gate to wire; five others were won by horses that rallied from more than four lengths off the pace after a half-mile; six others from somewhere in the middle. The turf course is fast, but the Shoemaker is likely to be won by a fast-closing horse in sharp current form and proven at the class.

Sweet Return, Grade 1 winner and Grade 1-placed, is most likely. The parimutuel quandary is whether his advantage is enough to accept a short price. If the odds are too low, Grade 2 winners Singletary and Designed for Luck enter as deserving secondary contenders.

It may seem that turf horses are running downhill this spring at Hollywood Park. But the best horses are winning most of the races, and there is little reason to expect that to change when Sweet Return, Designed for Luck, and Singletary take aim on the outclassed front-runners in the Shoemaker Mile.