08/10/2004 11:00PM

Time to capitalize on first-time grass starters

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LAS VEGAS - Grass racing is more popular in this country than ever before, but there is still a paucity of turf races for juveniles. It is refreshing to see that tracks like Belmont, Saratoga, Del Mar, and Ellis Park are carding more turf races for 2-year-olds than ever before, but opportunities for young runners who are better bred for grass are still sporadic. With few options, many of these juveniles wind up racing on dirt, where they are rarely as effective.

This makes for some great pedigree plays, however, as these young runners turn 3 and begin to show dramatic form reversal when trying grass for the first time after a steady diet of dirt races.

In order to capitalize on this powerful angle of pedigree handicapping, knowledge of sires and sire lines is critical.

Last year's freshman sires (sires whose first crop of foals are 3 this year) are beginning to assert themselves in many ways now that their runners are performing on all surfaces, and at varying distances.

Stravinsky was last year's leading freshman sire based in North America, according to money earned and by number of winners, even though the majority of his runners raced on turf in Europe. Because he raced exclusively in Europe (where he was a champion 3-year-old in England), he is relatively unknown to most horseplayers in this country, and his runners are often overlooked. The general rule of thumb to betting runners by any sire is to take a look at his sire, which is part of the pedigree line in Daily Racing Form's past performances. Since Stravinsky is by one of the world's great turf stallions, Nureyev, it stands to reason that Stravinsky's offspring will prefer turf. Of course, there are always aberrations, but they are exceptions to the rule.

All is not black and white, however. In many cases, stallions who are known for their success on dirt in this country also happen to have pedigrees that suggest that their runners should do well on grass. These are the hidden turf sires, and playing offspring by these stallions can result in significant scores.

Forestry had high speed, winning the King's Bishop Stakes at seven furlongs, and stretched out to win the 1 1/16-mile Dwyer Stakes around one turn and also finished third in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational Handicap behind Menifee and Cat Thief. Forestry's first crop displayed good speed as juveniles last year on dirt, and now they are also winning on grass, which is hardly surprising, since he is a son of Storm Cat.

Other sons of Storm Cat whose first crop of 3-year-olds are showing up on turf include Tactical Cat, Stormin Fever, Exploit, Sea of Secrets, Scatmandu, and Cloud Cover. They all have a license to sire grass winners. Menifee, a grandson of Storm Cat, has also sired winners on turf even though he was a success on dirt.

Sires whose runners were at a disadvantage racing on dirt at 2 but who are now coming to life on grass, include Horse Chestnut (by Fort Wood), Charismatic (Summer Squall), Military (Danzig), Bianconi (Danzig), Wild Event (Wild Again), Parade Ground (Kingmambo), Sahm (Mr. Prospector), Perfect Mandate (Gone West), Western Borders (Gone West), Comic Strip (Red Ransom), Mud Route (Strawberry Road), Trail City (Red Ransom), and Sand Tunnel (Gulch).

Turf okay for Victory Gallop's runners

Victory Gallop was one of the best colts of his generation, best remembered for thwarting Real Quiet's quest for the Triple Crown with a stirring stretch run in the Belmont Stakes. He also finished second in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Travers, and Haskell Invitational Handicap at 3, and was named champion older male at 4 when he won the Whitney and Stephen Foster handicaps.

Victory U. S. A., Victory Light, and Notorious Rogue were stakes-placed runners from Victory Gallop's first crop last year, but his lone juvenile stakes winner was Galloping Gal, who earned black type on the grass. While this may have been surprising to many players because Victory Gallop is associated as a dirt runner, he has all the genetic tools to sire grass winners also. Victory Gallop is by Cryptoclearance, who gets his fair share of turf winners, such as Volponi. While his biggest victory came in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic, Volponi was versatile, winning on turf as well as dirt. In fact, his first stakes victory was on turf in the Pilgrim Stakes at 2.

Remembering P.G. Johnson

Volponi was the culmination of a career full of many achievements for Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson, who died last week after a battle with cancer.

I will always cherish the many conversations I had with P.G., especially when we chatted about pedigrees in general, and his 2-year-olds in particular. Johnson had a wealth of knowledge regarding pedigrees, and could recite the second, third, fourth, and even fifth dams of the horses he bred and trained for his family's Amherst Stable. Most of the mares he sought were modest purchases, but he knew exactly what he wanted, and most of these broodmares became stakes producers.