10/28/2003 12:00AM

Turf spurs Tonco's turnaround

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - The first thing trainer Brian Koriner did after claiming Tonco for $12,500 last April was try him on turf.

The result was a second-place finish in an allowance race that turned into a victory when Prairie Predator was disqualified. In three turf starts since, Tonco has two victories and a second to Pacifica Handicap winner Vallarta in his last start.

Tonco will try to continue his turf success when he meets five rivals in a $50,000 optional claimer at 1 1/8 miles in Thursday's Bay Meadows feature.

"I wasn't concerned about his numbers," said Koriner, referring to Tonco's Tomlinson turf rating of a well-below-average 232. "I just tried him because I saw Flying Continental, Flying Paster, and African Sky in his pedigree.

"He had been running well and had run well in the mud so I figured, 'What the heck?' And I thought he had a turf stride the way he picks his feet up."

Koriner's hunch proved correct and has proven profitable for bettors. Tonco returned $75.60 in his first victory, $20.20 in his second, and $13.80 in his third. He went off at nearly 5-1 at this level in his last start.

He will likely offer value again Thursday with the presence of Gold Ruckus, Woody Haze, and Sanger in the field.

Tonco and Sanger figure to be the pacesetters, although Sanger appears to be a little quicker. Tonco, though, is not strictly a need-to-lead type.

Gold Ruckus returned from a 7 1/2-month layoff to record a victory on Oct. 4., and has worked nicely since. His three wins and a second in four starts over the course is the same as Tonco's, and Gold Ruckus will have a good pace to follow.

Wildwood Flower, a half-sister of Eye of the Tiger and an impressive winner in her debut, seems the one to beat in the co-feature when six 2-year-old fillies meet at six furlongs under the first allowance condition.

Five of the six fillies won in wire-to-wire style. The sixth, Siberian Shamrock, could be Wildwood Flower's toughest rival. Siberian Shamrock stumbled at the start of her debut on Sept. 7 but was able to rally late to win by a nose.

"She scared me to death when she stumbled," said Lloyd Mason, Wildwood Flower's trainer. "Maybe that was for the best because we know she can come from off the pace."

Mason said Wildwood Flower is healthy but hasn't run in seven weeks.