06/02/2005 12:00AM

Slow pace won't hurt Delta Princess


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Hall of Fame riders Gary Stevens and Mike Smith moved from California to Kentucky this spring in part because of fewer riding opportunities caused by short fields on the West Coast. Now short fields have become commonplace at Churchill Downs, too.

Heading into Thursday's card, the track was averaging 8.3 runners per race in three weeks of racing since the Kentucky Derby, well down from the nine-plus runners the track attracted in past years. Dirt races have been particularly short, averaging 7.5 runners.

That is not to say that the turf races here have filled to capacity. They haven't. Saturday's Grade 3 Early Times Mint Julep Stakes drew seven entries.

Bettors, just like riders, tend to frown upon such races. They offer little to no value, frequently causing a gambler to have to ask, "Do I like this 7-5 shot or this 2-1 horse?" It's difficult to dream of riches that way.

The Mint Julep presents such a scenario. Shaconage and Delta Princess, the only graded winners, each figure to be 2-1 or less. Shaconage, third behind Miss Terrible in the Grade 3 Winnercomm Turf Mile on Derby Day, will likely start as the favorite, with Delta Princess just a notch or two higher on the tote board.

At least Smith can take heart in that he is aboard Shaconage. Stevens, meanwhile, is riding Saturday at Hollywood Park.

Although the Mint Julep is not a favorable betting race in terms of depth, I do like how the race shapes up for Delta Princess. A late runner, she actually seems to be at her best in races with little pace - circumstances she should get in the Mint Julep.

Handicappers tend to look for speed horses in paceless races, but an easy lead on turf does not assure victory for a front-runner. On the contrary, a slow pace on turf often bunches the field, thereby turning the race into a test of who can quicken fastest down the stretch. Sometimes that is an early leader, other times a closer.

Delta Princess thrives when presented with a slow pace. Two of her three victories in 2004-2005 came when she rallied behind opening half-mile fractions that went in excess of 49 seconds. Last month in one of her better races, she rallied behind a dawdling pace to be second to Intercontinental in the Jenny Wiley.

End to quarantine a plus

Conditions at Churchill can only improve in the weeks ahead, if for no other reason that a quarantine of more than 100 horses caused by the equine herpes discovery is seemingly coming to a merciful end. One of three barns quarantined, the one stabling horses trained by Paul McGee, Ron Ellis, and Bill Cesare, is scheduled to be released from quarantine Saturday, assuming the horses passed blood tests. This would free them to race immediately.

McGee, whose horses never became sick but had the misfortune of being in a barn with a Cesare-trained horse that developed herpes, entered three horses Saturday, including Cape Town Lass in the Mint Julep.

Trainer Steve Asmussen's timing was not as fortunate. Pending the results of blood tests, the quarantine of his stable will end Sunday, when he can begin racing his Churchill Downs-based horses again, racing secretary Doug Bredar said. This kept Asmussen from entering five horses Saturday at Churchill, including Sister Swank in the Mint Julep, Bredar said.

Trainer Ronny Werner's stable is expected be the last of the three barns released. According to Bredar, Werner may clear quarantine early next week and could be eligible to race Wednesday.

The shortage of entries cannot be solely attributed to the quarantine. Competition for horses is also responsible, particularly with regard to low- to mid-level horses. Mountaineer Race Track, Indiana Downs, and River Downs compete with Churchill for conditioned claimers, sometimes providing the opportunity to run on grass in cheap races.

Even Arlington Park, despite being owned by Churchill Downs, competes for horses. Trainers such as Tom Proctor, Carl Nafzger, Tony Reinstedler, Tom Amoss, Asmussen, and McGee all have strings at both Churchill and Arlington.

In areas in which Churchill has a significant purse advantage over those tracks - mostly in allowances and stakes - the outlook has not been much prettier. Not a single allowance was filled for Thursday's card. The feature was a six-horse $50,000 claimer.

Additionally, stables that came to Churchill from California this spring have run their horses sparingly, and out-of-town stakes races are often deemed by trainers to be easier than Churchill money allowances, which have contributed to some five- and six-horse fields in upper-level races.

Entries were far from perfect for Saturday's races, but half of the 10 scheduled races did attract eight or more betting interests.

"We've seen some improvement," Bredar said. "It gives me hope."

Look to Louisiana for big fields

Bettors searching for large fields with betting value should take a close look at racing from Louisiana Downs. Full fields have been a regular occurrence there since Evangeline Downs suspended racing to overhaul its racetrack, which was deemed unsafe.

Saturday's 10-race card at Louisiana Downs features eight races with 10 or more entrants. Five races have more horses than can fit in the starting gate.