06/30/2004 12:00AM

So many turf sprints, so few reliable angles


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Playing the races in these parts means handicapping turf sprint races. A lot of them. More, in fact, than in any other part of the country. Usually, it's best to concentrate on horses who have established themselves as specialists in such races, but it also pays to simply follow trainers who win a high percentage of turf sprints. If you listen to some of them, however, their secret is no secret at all.

For some, a big part of their success can be summed up in a word - luck.

"I never really try to point a horse for turf sprints," said trainer Jim Ryerson, who has won at a 29 percent clip in such races over the past five years, with a strong $4.39 return on investment for bettors. "It's usually just a case of running out of all other options."

Tim Hills, a trainer who has won with 33 percent of his starters in turf sprints at Monmouth over the past two years, agrees.

"I think you end up with turf sprinters more than you go out and try to acquire them," he said. "It's more a case of an opportunity presenting itself than going out and getting a turf sprinter. If the horse has some speed and any kind of turf pedigree you can try it."

Kate DeMasi has won with 22 percent of starters in short grass races over the past two years.

One of the best horses she has had is Merry Princess, a multiple stakes winner who raced exclusively as a short-distance turf horse before retiring in 2002.

"Because I've had success in the past, sometimes as we're looking to purchase horses we'll look at the pedigree and say, 'Well, we could always try the turf if all else fails,' " she said. "A horse like Merry Princess could never have done on the dirt what she did on the turf."

DeMasi's view on success with turf sprinters is simple: Get the right horses.

"I like what a jockey once told me: 'All horses run on the turf. Some run better than others,' " she said with a laugh. "You just need a horse with good natural speed with the ability to handle the grass well."

That description perfectly fits the Ryerson-trained Tangier Sound. Early in her career her trainer knew she had distance limitations. He also knew she had ability, but it was a struggle to bring it out of her. In desperation, he tried her on the grass.

"We only tried her on the turf by default," he said. "She's well bred, by Rahy, but we couldn't break her maiden on the dirt. We had to go to Colonial to get her a maiden sprint on the turf."

It turned out to be worth the trip. Tangier Sound won that race by 4 1/2 lengths and has gone on to win seven of her 15 turf sprint starts, including four stakes wins. Ryerson, respecting that she is a sprint specialist, has never tried to stretch her outs. And she has only raced on the dirt once since her maiden win, when last year's Thomas J. Malley Stakes was rained onto the main track. She has been idle since running fifth in The Very One Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness weekend but will return on Sunday in the $60,000 Betsy Ross Stakes at Monmouth. She figures to run well, as usual, because she has been working strongly.

"She's one of those horses who just didn't look like much on the dirt," said Ryerson.

That's the case for a lot of horses who find a niche in this area. Hills may not actively be in the market for a grass sprinter, but he certainly knows when he has one. He trains four-time stakes winner Joe's Son Joey, who never has run in anything but a turf sprint. Then there is Scattering Breezes, who has had mild success against claimers on the dirt, but who has now won two of three sprint tries on the turf, including an allowance race. He has gotten the opportunity to excel for Hills only because of the proliferation of turf sprints in this area.

"It seems like with a lot of racing secretaries and some of the horsemen, they would only run a turf sprint race over their dead bodies, because they don't want to take away from the dirt races they can run and they don't want to tear up their course," he said. "But the turf sprints have become something of a specialty of Monmouth and The Meadowlands over the years."

In addition to the New Jersey circuit, Philadelphia Park and the Maryland tracks card a number of short races on the grass. The races at Colonial Downs, of course, are predominantly run on the turf, with many of those races sprints.

"The turf sprints are very popular with the horsemen, and with the bettors," said Mike Dempsey, Monmouth's racing secretary. "If we had two turf courses, we'd run even more."

One of the few major tracks in the region that does not offer many grass sprints is Delaware Park. According to racing secretary Sam Abbey, that's mostly due to the configuration of the oval and that the meet is a long one. One course must bear the load for about five months of racing.

"I've got nothing against turf sprints," he said. "I've never been a guy that thought it tears the course up more than a distance race. I just don't have a lot of room for them, because when we run them the field breaks very close to the turn. And we don't have the options that other tracks have. Maryland can run at Pimlico, Laurel, and Colonial [in Virginia]. New York runs at Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga. We're limited in that the course has to last a 139-day meet."

Not so at Monmouth, which is running an 87-day meet in 2004. There are no less than 11 turf sprint stakes races, and they're worth upward of $400,000. That's a lot of purse money available for those trainers with enough foresight - and luck - to have a specialist in the field.

"I get people who ask me, 'Gee, how do you train a horse to like the turf?' and I think it's one of the dumbest questions," said Hills. "You just train them. If they like the turf, then that's what you do with them."