05/23/2006 11:00PM

Speed is key on E.P. Taylor turf


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Grass racing recently returned to Woodbine, which means many full fields of intriguing and sometimes indecipherable races.

The European-style E.P. Taylor turf course, which encircles the main track, is 1 1/2 miles in circumference. Its stretch, at 1,440 feet, is the longest of any track's on the continent.

The course can be divided into six lanes, with the innermost lane saved primarily for the days on which major stakes are staged, such as the Canadian International and Woodbine Mile.

To try and prevent wear and tear, shoes with any significant grab on them are no longer permitted on the course. The shoes allowed are flat, Queen's Plate and Queen's Plate XT.

A dry summer helps produce a hard course, which often favors front-runners. In fact, speed is usually the dominant style on this course whenever dry conditions occur for any length of time.

According to the 2006 edition of Jim Mazur's informative publication "Woodbine Handicapper," horses running in a stalking position (within four lengths of the lead, but not directly on the lead, at the two main points of call) fared the best in turf sprints here from 2003 to 2005.

At six furlongs, stalkers won at a 46-percent clip, compared to 34 percent for front-runners and 20 percent for closers. Closers were considerably more effective at seven furlongs, winning 34 percent of the races, compared to 36 percent for stalkers and 30 percent for front-runners.

Stalkers were also dominant in longer one-turn races - from a mile to 1 1/8 miles - winning at a 41-percent rate. Closers won 37 percent of those races, and front-runners 22 percent.

In the two-turn races - from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/2 miles - stalkers and closers each won at a 40-percent clip. Front-runners prevailed only 20 percent of the time.

Pedigree handicappers have often been frustrated by the notion that many horses bred strictly for the dirt seem to handle the Taylor turf.

Reade Baker, last year's Sovereign Award-winning trainer, concurs with the theory. He won two graded turf stakes here in 2004 with Slew Valley, whom he said had a dirt-oriented pedigree.

"I don't buy into that turf breeding stuff over this course," Baker said. "I just take them over and run them. The year I had Slew Valley, he was the only horse in my barn who did not have a turf pedigree."

There are, however, some sires whose offspring win with some regularity over the course. They include Smart Strike, Langfuhr, Sky Classic, Wild Zone, Regal Classic, Sultry Song, Holy Bull, and Lit de Justice.

Ontario sires that bear watching when their offspring try the grass in restricted races include Ascot Knight, Bold n' Flashy, Highland Ruckus, Bold Executive, Compadre, Tethra, and Kiridashi.

Many handicappers believe class reigns supreme on the grass, but class levels occasionally are blurred in allowance and optional claimers on the Taylor turf. Examples of this came last year with Sweetgum, Larry's Smile, and Sheer Enchantment, all of whom were competitive at the second-level allowance category when they were still eligible for a first-level allowance.

Local trainers sometimes run their turf horses out of their conditions, because there are limited opportunities on the grass and they don't want to wait too long seeking the perfect spot, knowing the possibility that the race they're eyeing might come off the grass.

Woodbine officials usually haven't hesitated moving the turf races to the dirt after some rainfall, which has been a source of frustration for horsemen and handicappers alike.

Favorites win less frequently on the grass here compared to the main track, and it is wise to back contenders who offer good value.