06/18/2002 11:00PM

Use Churchill dark days to tab turf workouts


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It is dark at Churchill Downs on Tuesdays. With no racing, the track is emptier than a high school during spring break. Too bad. Valuable research can be done there between 9 and 10 a.m.

On Tuesdays and occasionally Thursdays, Churchill Downs permits training on its turf course. It is a great opportunity for horses to get familiar with the surface, and it allows trainers the chance to try their runners on grass - giving them a feel for whether or not they belong in an upcoming turf race.

It is also an ideal time for horseplayers to examine and analyze the relative merits of these horses - either in person or once the workouts are published, in an analysis of their times.

What makes these works more important than main track works? They reveal the unknown in some instances. Determining how a horse will handle the turf in its debut on the surface is one of the toughest challenges a horseplayer faces.

Without works, players can look at pedigrees and trainer records, but they will be guessing about how the horse will perform. These grass works provide evidence.

Tom Amoss, more than any other trainer at Churchill Downs, has used this grass opportunity the most. He often tips his hand when his horses work swiftly on grass.

The freakish Jeremiah Jack worked swiftly on turf before his overpowering victory in his grass debut, and last week Supremo Secret ($17.80) won first time on grass after recording a fast half-mile on turf in 49 seconds.

What is so fast about 49 seconds? Like every work on grass, it came around the dogs - the orange pylons that are placed in the middle of the course to prevent the horses from tearing up the inside part of the course.

When a horse works a half-mile on turf at Churchill in 49 seconds, it is roughly equivalent to doing the same thing on the main track with a 10-wide trip.

Supremo Secret wasn't the only horse last week to work on grass and return with a powerful race. The eventual first-, second-, and fourth-place finishers from last weekend's Regret Stakes - Distant Valley, Peace River Lady, and Kathy K D - also worked on turf June 11.

This wasn't a one-race wonder. Guana ($6.60) and Moon Solitaire ($16.90) won out-of-town stakes after recording turf works on June 4.

Technically, turf workouts at Churchill Downs are limited to horses scheduled to run in turf stakes. That rule is enforced about as often as police officers ticket pedestrians for jaywalking.

Well-bred maidens and lightly raced allowance horses can find their way onto the grass course for workouts. Churchill Downs is smart to give trainers such latitude.

It provides bettors with useful information when these horses get ready to run on grass, and the public will wager with more confidence. Just as importantly, the trainers and owners of these horses have the chance to prepare their runners in the best possible way.

The hardest part about observing these works is that they take place in rapid-fire succession. There are usually 20 or more workers on turf within a 15-minute time frame, and in many instances, they break off just seconds behind one another. This makes timing all of them practically impossible for one man with a stopwatch.

I've found it more rewarding to make visual observations, noting stable saddlecloths, before looking at the times in detail when they are posted later that day on the Internet. Horseplayers can then flag the horses they're interested in on stablemail, and await their future races.

Tuesdays may be dark days, but bettors need not remain in the dark about turf horses any longer.