08/11/2005 12:00AM

Time to rethink the Sword Dancer

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Better Talk Now would have been a heavy favorite to win the Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap here Saturday, but his camp announced Thursday that he will probably scratch and run instead in the Arlington Million the same afternoon. That created a better Million and a more wide-open Sword Dancer but gave rise to an even chalkier proposition: that the Sword Dancer will continue its recent history of being a Grade 1 race in name only, a rating that should be lowered unless the race is rescheduled in future years to attract better horses.

The Sword Dancer was an important and legitimate stop on the Grade 1 grass tour through the 1980's, when it was won by eventual turf champions such as John Henry in 1984 and Theatrical in 1987. The race's decline began when Saratoga was stretched to a six- rather than four-week meeting and the Sword Dancer was moved from July at Belmont to August at the Spa to provide another big-name Saturday feature.

In most years, that meant horses could not run in both the Sword Dancer and the Arlington Million, and now that the Sword Dancer is run even later and the Million even earlier, we are left with the absurd situation of two Grade 1 grass routes on the same day in New York and Illinois. There are not enough legitimate Grade 1 grass horses to support the two races, and the best of them continue to opt for the richer Million.

The New York Racing Association is running television ads encouraging locals to "come out and see the best grass horses" in the Sword Dancer, but for that they'd have to catch a flight to Chicago. The Million, even without Better Talk Now, has Kitten's Joy, Sweet Return, Powerscourt, Cool Conductor, and Good Reward. The Sword Dancer has a bettable but decidedly Grade 2 or 3 field. That can happen in any given year for a dozen reasons, but it has become standard for the Sword Dancer since the race was moved to Saratoga and frequently put into conflict with the Million.

The Sword Dancer has not become a fan favorite or woven itself into Saratoga tradition, and it can be altered without objection from historic preservationists in one of two ways. NYRA should either try to save it as a Grade 1 event by pushing it back to Belmont in July and making it a viable precursor to the Million, or halve the purse and double the grade, making it officially the Grade 2 race it has become.

Turf sprints a popular novelty

Tinkering with anything about Saratoga racing is an iffy thing, but one innovation this year has proved immediately popular: The introduction of grass sprints to the racing program.

New York had long resisted 5 1/2-furlong grass races at both Belmont and Saratoga despite their popularity at so many other Eastern tracks. The reasoning was the somewhat peculiar theory that horses traveling a couple of miles per hour faster in a 5 1/2-furlong race than in a one-mile race would do irreparable damage to the grass courses.

After three grass sprints in the past week at Saratoga, the sod appears just fine. The first two races, one each for older $35,000 claimers, drew raggedy fields including maidens and bottom-rung claimers from out of town, but they were interesting races to handicap and play. Thursday's card featured the first such allowance race, and it attracted a competitive mix of turf sprinters, imports, and solid dirt horses trying grass for the first time.

It is an idea whose time has arrived for New York racing, and there's no reason that it couldn't be expanded to include a variety of shorter grass races at six and seven furlongs. Pedigrees are getting greener all the time, and there are plenty of weary dirt sprinters around whose careers could be revivified with a switch to the grass.

New Yorkers are a bit baffled by these races. Personally, I liked the looks of a 2-3-7 exacta box in Thursday's edition, and the result was a 4-5-8. This is probably good news for out-of-town horseplayers who have gained insight into betting turf sprints in recent years. Until we in the Empire State figure out what to look for and bet on in these races, there's an opportunity for the rest of you to get some nice prices at our expense.