12/18/2002 12:00AM

Turfway giving horseplayers an early gift

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Who believes in quality over quantity? Not many horseplayers. Often bettors will wager more on a cheap race with a large field than a classy race with a small lineup.

Whoever said less is more wasn't a handicapper. In the absence of talent, horseplayers want action, opportunities, and value.

They are getting that at Turfway Park. Fields have been surprisingly full and competitive throughout the meet, which has led to wagering opportunities and big prices.

Over the first 11 days of Turf-way's meeting, 951 horses have started in 96 races, an average of almost 10 starters per race. That's with two racing programs cut short because of inclement weather.

An average of nearly 10 runners per race is virtually unheard of. Turfway is doing it, and without a turf course.

How is Turfway managing this? By writing more races for unaccomplished horses - animals that typically aren't sent south to race at the premier winter tracks.

On a typical nine-race card, six or seven races are for maidens or conditioned claimers. These races repeatedly draw an overflow of entries, up to 16, which are reduced to 12 at scratch time the day before the races.

"I've never heard or ever seen anything like this," said racing secretary Rick Leigh, referring to Turfway's field sizes.

Turfway is also benefiting from less competition. Although it faces stiff competition for fans from nearby riverboats, the same isn't true for horses, at least right now.

Hoosier Park in Indiana closed at the end of November, and Mountaineer, in West Virginia's western panhandle, is in the midst of a three-week break from racing until Dec. 26. This leaves Turfway with a tremendous pool of horses from which to draw upon.

Things will get more difficult after Christmas. Turfway doesn't have slots-aided purses like Moun-taineer, and some horsemen will leave for Arkansas and the Oaklawn Park meet, which begins Jan. 24.

But Beulah Park in Ohio closes Dec. 22, and Turfway should pick up some starters from Chicago when Hawthorne closes for the winter Jan. 1.

In the meantime, it is a good idea to indulge in some Turfway Park betting while the opportunities last.

Man cannot live on Turfway Park's steady diet of $7,500 claimers alone, but those races complement the better-quality races from the traditional winter-racing powers.

Early scratch time an inconvenience

Although it's refreshing to have full fields at Turfway, the track's old-school scratch time is frustrating for bettors, something Leigh acknowledges.

Unlike most tracks, Turfway does not scratch off the program. It has a scratch time the day before the races, when also-eligibles can draw into the race. Also at this time, final riding assignments are determined.

One benefit of this practice is that it allows horses to race that otherwise would have been excluded from an oversubscribed race. Because of this early scratch time, four horses drew into Wednesday's races that would have been otherwise excluded.

But the benefit is offset by the headache it causes horseplayers. Because of these late changes, handicappers repeatedly have to adjust to account for program numbers, jockey switches, and the like.

If you like to get an edge by handicapping a day before the race, it's tougher to analyze a race when a rider is named on multiple horses. This happens frequently at Turf-way.

This forces horseplayers to check a track program or the Internet to determine every rider change and every program number.

Turfway should adopt a scratch-off-the-program practice with two alternates available to start if a scratch occurs by race morning.

Alternates drawing in on race day can cause last-minute shipping difficulties for horsemen stabled off track, but with Turfway running at night three days a week, this wouldn't be as much of an issue as it would be for a track with an afternoon post time.

Scratching off the program would be good for the track, and good for bettors.

"It's something we're looking at," Leigh said. "I think it's something we might do next year, maybe even by January."