08/25/2008 11:00PM

When rails are way out, turf fractions are skewed


OCEANPORT, N.J. - Last Wednesday at Monmouth Park, the $20,000 claimer Mad Bob Cat set scintillating early fractions in the fourth race, which was run on the turf at 1 1/8 miles. The 6-year-old Mad Bob Cat, who came into the race winless in eight starts on the grass, was timed in 21.97 for the opening quarter and 45.25 for the half-mile while on a clear lead, and he was doing it easily.

Even with that quick pace, Mad Bob Cat was stubborn through the lane, dueling with King's Coronation past the eighth pole and racing strongly to the wire, yielding only late. He was able to hold third behind the late-running Teddy Ballgame and King's Coronation despite those quick early splits. A huge race, right?

Not so fast.

It turns out that in turf races at Monmouth, out of the chute and at the distance of 1 1/8 miles - and with the rails out 36 feet - the early fractions are almost always going to come up fast. That's because at this specific distance, and when the fences are out at this maximum setting (rails are placed out 12, 24, and 36 feet at Monmouth) there's a very long "run-up" from the gate to the first pole, which trips the timer. According to Dennis Devlin, who is responsible for the timing of the races and the photo finish camera at Monmouth, the run-up time is as much as seven seconds in races run under these conditions, which means the horses are very much in full flight before the timer even begins. Races run at 1 1/8 miles with the rails in closer to the hedge, or with no rails out at all, have a much shorter run to the first timing pole, and therefore more conventional fractions are posted.

Before Wednesday's race, the most recent race run at 1 1/8 miles on the turf with the rails out 36 feet came on July 30, in a $25,000 maiden claimer. The fractions were 22.13, 46.34, and 1:11.11, further evidence that the times are skewed in races run under these circumstances

This past Sunday, in a second-level optional $32,000 claimer at 1 1/8 miles with the rails all the way out, Tastefully Smart shook loose through fractions of 23.90, 48.80, and 1:11.90, and, predictably, held on for the win. Given the evidence, Maddy's Crowd and Lightning Power, who closed ground late for second and fourth, ran much better than it appears on paper.

Big Brown no sure thing

Big Brown's return in the newly created Monmouth Stakes, to be run on the grass at 1 1/8 miles on Sept. 13, is being viewed by many as an exhibition in preparation for his ultimate goal, the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Not so fast.

With Big Brown in the Monmouth Stakes, the purse swells to $500,000, a figure that's sure to attract at least a couple of decent, established local turf horses, not to mention shippers from nearby states, including New York. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, for one, has left open the possibility that Shakis, winner of last weekend's Bernard Baruch at Saratoga, will fit the Monmouth Stakes into his schedule. Shakis posted a 103 Beyer in winning the Baruch, his seventh win in 31 starts on the grass.

Hotstufanthensome, who has been in the exacta in 11 of 13 starts over the Monmouth turf course, is another possibility for the Monmouth Stakes. He was third in his last race, the Grade 3 Oceanport, finishing behind Silver Tree, who has 14 turf wins. Hotstufanthensome earned a 97 Beyer in the Oceanport despite chasing slow early fractions in a race lacking speed.

Big Brown, meanwhile, has exactly one start on the turf, his career debut, which he won by daylight after setting his own pace on a clear lead. He earned a 90 Beyer, beating horses such as Doctor Cal (81 Beyer next time), Wotan (78), and Hidden Glance (69, 61, 62 in three subsequent turf starts).

Big Brown is immensely talented, but we're still left with this: a 3-year-old, inexperienced on the turf and looking ahead to a bigger race, facing older, established grass runners as the odds-on favorite. Sound like a cinch?