11/09/2006 12:00AM

Speed finding Churchill is kinder


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - One challenge for handicappers coming into the Churchill Downs fall meet was to figure out how to weight form established over the Polytrack surface at Keeneland, where many Kentucky-based horses ran last month. The consensus among horseplayers was to not get too high or low on performances over the Polytrack, and to upgrade the performances of speed horses that faded over a Polytrack strip that was deemed favorable to closers.

Through Wednesday, with eight days of racing complete at the Churchill meet, those assessments seem largely correct. From the first 84 races contested at this meet, there were numerous examples of speed horses faring much better at Churchill than at Keeneland. The evidence was less clear on how the general Polytrack form has held up at Churchill.

There have been cases of horses from Keeneland running well at Churchill, the most obvious example being Street Sense, who scored a 10-length win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after finishing third in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. Horses that have trained at Keeneland have also run well, at Churchill and across the country.

But I counted only four horses that have won at the Churchill meet after winning at Keeneland on Polytrack. One of those winners scored on the Churchill grass course.

I thought some of these winners might be overlooked because of questions over their Polytrack accomplishments, but only two of the winners paid well. Peace Pledge and Zanjero both won Nov. 2, at 10-1 and 8-1.

The limited success of Keeneland winners is likely an indication of how different a synthetic surface is from traditional dirt tracks. Many horses seem to be more effective on one than the other.

It might also be a reflection on how differently races are run on dirt. Jockeys at Churchill have let their mounts run in the early stages of races, unlike at Keeneland, where most every rider was taking a hold in an effort to save something for the stretch. That turned Keeneland races into a test of who could quicken best over the final quarter-mile.

Slow-paced races did not unfold as often at Turfway, where there is another Polytrack surface. Speed at Turfway also seemed to hold on better than it did at Keeneland.

Some trainers and jockeys are doing much better at Churchill than at Keeneland. Trainer Scott Blasi's horses are running very well following a quiet meet at Keeneland, where he trained many of his better horses, and jockey Calvin Borel is having much more success at Churchill, flying up the rail with his mounts seemingly race after race.

Outperformance back on his game

The big race of the day on Saturday at Churchill is a turf race, and a very good one - the $150,000 Commonwealth Turf. A 1 1/16-mile grass race for 3-year-olds, the race drew an evenly matched group of 11, led by Brilliant and Outperformance.

Brilliant, winner of the Kent Breeders' Cup two starts ago at Delaware Park, is 3 for 3 over the local turf course. Outperformance has never raced on the Churchill turf. Despite this inexperience, he is my choice.

Winner of the Grade 3 Hill Prince Stakes at Belmont Park in June, Outperformance has returned to form this fall after a couple of lackluster summer stakes efforts. He won a second-level allowance at Belmont Park on Sept. 9 and returned to finish second to Showing Up in the Grade 2 Jamaica Breeders' Cup Handicap at Belmont on Oct. 14.

As for Brilliant, he can be excused for running sixth in the Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby on Oct. 14. Empty in the stretch, he was discovered to have a lung infection, trainer Neil Howard said. He also may have bounced after running a career-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure when he won the Kent Breeders' Cup by 6 1/2 lengths. His win in the Kent came on soft ground, unlike his other races, which have all come on firm turf.