05/22/2007 12:00AM

Value of speed has diminished


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If the Grade 1 speedball Sinister Minister is something more just than a one-hit wonder, then he will return to form Thursday in the seventh-race feature at Hollywood Park.

Unfortunately for Sinister Minister, racing has changed the past 14 months. Gone is the Keeneland dirt on which he won the 2006 Blue Grass Stakes by more than 12 lengths. Gone are year-round speed-friendly dirt tracks in California, the type on which Sinister Minister's wicked speed once was an invaluable asset.

Instead, Sinister Minister must try to carry his speed on the synthetic Cushion Track surface at Hollywood. Good luck to him. Because while early pace is not necessarily a liability, it certainly is not the weapon it once was on conventional dirt tracks.

The changing dynamics make Sinister Minister a potential bet-against in a race open to second-level allowance runners and $62,500 claimers at 1 1/16 miles that attracted a good field of eight. Sinister Minister, the speed of the field, might win anyway. But others are more qualified.

The $55,000 allowance is the second start on Cushion Track for Sinister Minister, who pressed a fast pace and weakened to third one month ago. Trained by Bob Baffert, Sinister Minister will try to wire the field from post 1, but he will be hounded by presser Kewen and three stretch-outs - Heatseeker, Tobe Suave, and Specalist Morgen J.

The race sets up for a closer, which is another shifting theme in California. On dirt, a front-runner can win an early pace battle and still win a race. But on Cushion Track, contested speed is less likely to succeed. When a race appears to set up for a closer, it usually unfolds accordingly on the track.

Scrummage was imported from England, where his only start on a synthetic track was a good runner-up finish. He was gelded prior to his U.S. debut in a turf sprint at Santa Anita, and beat only two horses in a dull showing.

But when trainer Dan Hendricks stretched him out to two turns this month, Scrummage improved a ton. He broke last, trailed, and finished well. That turf race sets him up for a winning effort on Cushion Track. Scrummage also adds blinkers; the last time he added blinkers resulted in a 12-1 upset last July in England.