11/02/2001 12:00AM

Speed horses fare much better on Churchill's turf

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When the racing scene shifts from one meeting to another on a circuit, changes in track bias trends can provide strong betting opportunities for handicappers. In Kentucky, the biggest difference between the ways races at Keeneland and Churchill are won has nothing to do with pace bias on the dirt. To varying degrees, both main tracks give an edge to horses with early and tactical speed, so there is no dramatic adjustment for handicappers to make.

But it's a whole new ball game on the grass. Keeneland's turf course favors closers most of the time. Churchill's course has been noticeably kinder to horses with early and tactical speed. In an interesting development, that difference has been magnified during the first few days of the current meet, with front-runners performing even better than usual. The leader at the first call has won three of the first six turf races at Churchill for total payoffs of $40.80, and a remarkable $6.80 ROI for every $2 wagered.

The eighth race on Sunday, Oct. 28, provides an example. Wertz had tried front-running tactics on Oct. 11 at Keeneland, but tired and faded to finish third of 10. He was clearly the speed of the speed, and figured to get loose on the lead at Churchill. At other recent meetings you would have wanted to give as much, or more respect to the runners who would be up close tracking Wertz. But at this meeting, early speed has been the preferred running style. Wertz drew off to an uncontested lead, never looked back, and won with a confident ride while being restrained during the last sixteenth of a mile.

Knave was the speed of the speed in Thursday's fifth race at Churchill, a five-furlong turf sprint for allowance horses. He had grabbed the lead at the first call in nine of the 12 races showing on his page. In two of the three races in which he did not lead at that call, he had been second, only a head behind the leader. Unfortunately, Knave had not been able to capitalize on his early speed, and was winless during that span while settling for four seconds and three third-place finishes.

Nevertheless, he had run a nice race at Churchill on July 5 in his lone previous start on the turf.

Knave dueled for the lead, then gave way grudgingly in deep stretch to finish second by 1 1/4 lengths as a 24-1 longshot behind Fantastic Finish that day. Would Knave hold on better in the rematch with Fantastic Finish with help from the Churchill turf speed bias? Knave led early as expected, then was able to shake off the challenge of Traversteed, and edged clear during the final quarter-mile to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Fantastic Finish was second. Knave returned $25.20 to those who had been among the first to catch on to the way the Churchill turf course was playing.

Three races later on the same card, The Knight Sky was attempting to clear his allowance four-other-than condition in a 1 1/16-mile race on the turf. The Knight Sky had been the early leader in four of his last five races, all on the grass. He had lost three straight at Churchill while using front-running tactics, won a race at Saratoga, then lost at Kentucky Downs over a course that usually helps closers. Pat Day tried rating him in fourth at Keeneland, but it didn't help, and he finished in that same position when better things were expected at low odds. Could The Knight Sky earn his first win on the turf at Churchill in his fifth career attempt? Handicappers who noted the way that Knave gamely held off all challengers in the fifth race had to like his chances. And they were right.

Although he swerved and hit the gate at the start, and raced two and three wide early, The Knight Sky maintained a modest lead for six furlongs, then drew off down the stretch to score by 2 3/4 lengths.

If Churchill's turf course continues to favor front-runners, bettors will find a cornucopia of betting opportunities. But even if it settles back into the more familiar trend of assisting horses who are among the first three to the first call, the difference between that bias, and the closer's bias on the turf at Keeneland will enable horses who quit down the stretch at Keeneland to improve by leaps and bounds. And closers who flew home impressively to win at Keeneland with help from the bias will be both overbet and vulnerable while trying to catch the speed at Churchill.