03/18/2008 12:00AM

Waiting for the weeds


While the racing world is getting over the shock of War Pass's weak seventh-place finish at 1-20 odds in the Tampa Bay Derby, it might be useful to realize that the Triple Crown chase is only one part of the season for promising 3-year-olds.

Fact is, many of the 449 original nominees to the 2008 Triple Crown actually will be better off working and racing towards the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park in August and other graded turf stakes throughout the country.

That's because the preoccupation to develop the next Kentucky Derby winner or the next Grade 1 dirt or synthetic track performer misses a central point: Dozens of promising 3-year-olds will not reach their prime form until they are switched to the grass.

A handful of these horses - such as Elysium Fields and Blackberry Road - may be bred to handle any surface and as such deserve the opportunity to move forward towards the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3.

Likewise, Yankee Bravo, who won two races on grass before he won the California Derby on Golden Gate Fields's Tapeta track in December and finished third in the Louisiana Derby on dirt at Fair Grounds earlier this month, clearly handles any surface. But horseplayers would be wise to expect major improvement when the majority of turf-bred horses that have failed to run strongly in Derby prep races finally are permitted to compete on the surface they were born to handle.

I do not presume to be a breeding expert and in fact refer readers to Lauren Stich's fine Daily Racing Form columns on the subject, as well as her chapter on pedigree handicapping in "Bet With the Best 2: Longshots" for more insightful clues. But, as an adjunct to my usual handicapping approaches, I find it useful to go through each year's Triple Crown nominees for three specific turf indicators:

* Horses with a good grass race early in their past performances.

* Horses untested on the grass, yet sired by proven grass performers or by high-profile grass sires.

* Horses with Tomlinson turf ratings at 320 and higher.

Horses with a good grass race early in their past performances - such as Briarwood Circle, Boss Lafitte, Cowboy Cal, and Big Brown - tend to improve on their dirt form when returned to grass racing. Briarwood Circle and Boss Lafitte certainly were more effective in limited turf races compared to their more recent dirt form, and Cowboy Cal has been kept on the grass. But Big Brown may be a rare dual threat similar to the way 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was equally comfortable on both surfaces.

Big Brown's 11-length romp in his career debut on grass at Saratoga last summer certainly was matched by a more recent solid score in 2008 in allowance company on dirt.

As indicated, I also make note of horses that have been untested on the grass yet were sired by proven grass performers or by high-profile grass sires. Likewise, I give the same credence to horses sired by the sons of proven grass performers or grass sires.

A good example of such a horse is Giant Moon, a New York-bred stakes-winning son of European star Giant's Causeway, who is a son of Storm Cat. Storm Cat, of course, is one of the world's greatest sire of sires.

The third group of horses that figures to improve when they are given opportunities on grass are those with Tomlinson turf numbers above 320, such as Giant Moon (with a 359 Tomlinson turf rating) and the less-accomplished Pearl Fisher, a maiden son of Smart Strike out of a Tabasco Cat mare who has a 340 Tomlinson turf rating. To date, Pearl Fisher has made bids without connecting in a few tries on synthetic tracks in Southern California for trainer Neil French. My guess is that improvement will come when French moves this one to the turf.

While it is impossible to list and describe all the qualifying horses here in this column, here are a few more with untapped turf potential. At the bottom line, they should provide some guidance for players to construct their own comprehensive list.

* Tiger Bud, who has a Tomlinson turf rating of 328, is a lightly raced maiden son of Storm Cat's son Hold That Tiger, who performed strongly as a 2-year-old in Europe. Trained by Barclay Tagg, Tiger Bud's move to turf is likely to come soon.

* Warrens A P Strike, with a 343 Tomlinson turf rating. He is a son of Smart Strike out of an A.P. Indy mare with three okay tries in sprints on Southern California synthetic tracks for trainer Jorge Gutierrez.

* Wotan (327 Tomlinson turf rating), who is a son of Dynaformer who finished second and third in two races in 2007, both on turf,and is being patiently handled by Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey for a probable unveiling during the Belmont Park spring meet.

To construct a more complete list, I suggest going through the past performances of all the 2008 Triple Crown nominees as published on www.drf.com and elsewhere.

These past performances also may prove useful for many different research projects, including those aimed at uncovering specific winning patterns for many of the nation's leading trainers.