03/23/2006 12:00AM

Turf horse can win weak Lane's End

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Think filling out your brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament is difficult? Try handicapping Saturday's Lane's End at Turfway Park.

The race is a scramble for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the exclusion of Strong Contender after the race overfilled. In his absence there is no standout on talent, just good horses who have potential but aren't proven under the race's conditions.

For instance, there is the Todd Pletcher-trained Tahoe Warrior, who is 2 for 3 on turf, but 0 for 6 off of it. Then there is the comebacking Silent Times, who hasn't raced in America. And then you have the rest of the field, a group that does not have a last-race Beyer Speed Figure better than an 84.

Considering that the average winning Beyer in the Lane's End over the last 10 years has been a 101, that leaves no clear-cut choice on figures.

Throw in the new surface at Turfway, the partially synthetic Polytrack footing that only some of the runners have experienced, and it is apparent that a cloud of uncertainty covers this race.

All of which suits me fine. It is a great betting race, one in which the favorite will likely be 4-1. As for who the favorite is going to be, that's anyone's guess.

My choice to take the Lane's End is not a horse I would normally back: European invader Silent Times. He has raced exclusively on grass, hasn't started since September, and is unraced beyond seven furlongs. I would also presume he hasn't seen the kind of quick early pace in Ireland that he is likely to see in the U.S.

That's the bad news. The good news is that his opponents also have faults, if perhaps of a different variety.

What I like about Silent Times is that his connections have managed him with such confidence, such planning, that you get the feeling they've planned a bank heist. In preparing for the race, they've trained him over Polytrack in Europe, he's done some swimming, and his connections have even staked out the place, visiting Turfway Park in January to get a feel for the surface and the surroundings.

Playing Silent Times is a shot in the dark, no doubt about it. Some young European turf horses run well first time on dirt, such as Johannesburg and Wilko, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2001 and 2004. A larger majority seemingly don't, including Set Alight, Ivan Denisovich, and Leo, each of whom were distant finishers in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

I generally don't like the turf-to-Polytrack move, preferring to focus on horses with proven dirt form, but given how slowly so many of these dirt horses have performed, I can't look past Silent Times. He's the pick to score a mild upset.

Track playing well to comebackers

Here's another trend working in favor of Silent Times. In recent weeks, horses coming off layoffs have performed uncharacteristically well over Polytrack.

From March 1 through Wednesday, I counted 70 horses whose last race had come before Dec. 1. Of that group, 14 horses won (20 percent) and 24 hit the board (34 percent).

Keep in mind that only five of those 14 went off as the public choice and four of the winners scored at double-digit odds, including one horse, Walleye Joe, who scored at 51-1 odds.

I would attribute some of their success to chance, but my guess would also be it might be easier for a layoff horse to run well over Polytrack than dirt.