08/06/2004 12:00AM

Turf a bit of an experiment


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Trainer Catherine Day Phillips had some of relatively run-of-the-mill worries sending out A Bit O'Gold for the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown.

But Sunday's $500,000 Breeders' Stakes, at 1 1/2 miles on the turf, presents a more fundamental question, as A Bit O'Gold will be trying grass for the first time.

The 36-year-old Day Phillips, who has 18 horses at the track and another eight to 10 whom she shuttles between Woodbine and her nearby Kingfield Farm, experienced the glare of the spotlight preparing the favored A Bit O'Gold for the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate here June 27.

"I was very happy with him going in," said Day Phillips. "My concerns were a large field, and getting a good trip. Obviously, they were well founded."

A Bit O'Gold was well placed early in the Plate under regular rider Jono Jones. But Niigon got the jump on him heading around the turn, and was able to stave off the determined A Bit O'Gold and prevail by three-quarters of a length.

The Canadian Triple Crown moved to Fort Erie for the second leg, the 1 3/16-mile Prince of Wales on July 18.

"Obviously, I thought about him handling a different racetrack," said Day Phillips. "I was confident that, mentally, he would ship well."

A Bit O'Gold turned the tables that day, digging down deep to nail Niigon at the wire on a track rated sloppy following midafternoon showers.

But while Niigon's connections decided to forgo the switch in surfaces, opting instead for Sunday's 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy at Saratoga, Day Phillips is staying the Canadian Triple Crown course with A Bit O'Gold in the Breeders'.

"We chose to stay here and run against Canadian-bred horses," said Day Phillips, adding that she had turned down an invitation for a A Bit O'Gold to compete in Sunday's Haskell at Monmouth Park.

"He's a gelding," she said. "We don't have to make him as a stallion.

"Any time you have this type of opportunity to run for this amount of money, in your own back yard, against Canadian-bred horses, it seems like the thing to do."

Which brings us back to the basic Breeders' question, which is whether A Bit O'Gold will handle turf.

A Bit O'Gold does not have a strong turf pedigree behind him and had never trained on the surface until he breezed five furlongs in 1:04.60 on a good main course with Jones in the irons here Monday.

The rubber cones called dogs were well out, and the connections of all the horses who breezed that morning said the works were very difficult to judge from a time standpoint.

Day Phillips, as an observer, gleaned little from the exercise.

"I was really none the wiser," said Day Phillips. "But Jono was pleased with him, and that's the important thing.

"I'm quite reserved about turf racing, anyway," she said. "When I worked Winter Whiskey I thought he liked the turf, and so did four or five other people who watched him."

Winter Whiskey, whom Day sent out to win a pair of stakes at 2 last season, disappointed badly in his lone turf try, which came in the 1 1/16-mile Cup and Saucer here last fall.

The bottom line is that the trainer can only guess at the impact of turf, and she is hoping that A Bit O'Gold has other assets that will enable him to carry the day in the Breeders'.

"Mentally and physically, he's in super shape," said Day Phillips. "He had a week at the farm after the Prince of Wales, and it really brightened him up. After the Queen's Plate, he was really depressed and angry. He was definitely not his usual self.

"He's training well now, and he's happy."

In addition to physical and mental well-being, Day Phillips thinks the Breeders' distance, coupled with his running style, will play to A Bit O'Gold's strengths.

"He's so readily rateable, I believe it's to his advantage," said Day Phillips. "He's easy on himself during race."

Then, there are the intangibles.

Day Phillips has never had a horse as talented as A Bit O'Gold since taking out her trainer's license in 1994, but she had plenty of experience with good horses during her days as an exercise rider for her father, trainer Jim Day.

A Bit O'Gold "has shown tremendous class and heart," said Day Phillips.

"He has a tremendous mental strength to him. He's just a solid, solid horse who's all business when he runs.

"He's tough to beat."