09/11/2003 11:00PM

Which Euro turf runners will improve on dirt?


Switching a horse form dirt to turf is often a means of discovering what makes a racehorse tick. Going in the opposite direction, however, is a less traveled road shrouded in mystery.

It pays to become aware of how and why a horse from Europe might improve when switched from turf to dirt. The number of European race courses with dirt tracks is increasing, and with European breeders sensitive to the American market, we are seeing a marked increase in the number of Europeans coming to America to run on dirt.

To anyone who was unaware of these trends, the victory of Buy the Sport in last Saturday's Gazelle Handicap at Belmont Park might serve as a wake-up call. That she was sent off as a 48-1 longshot is a reflection of American bettors' inability to properly gauge European form, but that Buy the Sport should have beaten three Grade 1 winners on dirt may herald a sea change in transatlantic relations.

The key to interpreting the apparent mystery in Buy the Sport's Gazelle victory is her win in the International Trial Stakes at Lingfield Park on April 5. A one-mile listed race open to colts and fillies, this race was inaugurated in 2002 for the sole purpose of giving Johannesburg a dirt prep for the Kentucky Derby.

That factor alone should serve as a warning that Europe is becoming more serious about dirt racing. Ironically, Johannesburg skipped the Lingfield fixture in favor of the Gladness Stakes in his backyard at The Curragh, but with Buy the Sport winning it this year, the Trial has earned a permanent place on the British racing calendar.

Students of form may have missed the fact that Buy the Sport beat Membership, the subsequent winner of the Group 3 Jersey Stakes at Royal Ascot, as well as Striking Ambition, who went on to listed-race tallies at Ascot and Newbury. More importantly, Belmont racegoers appeared to be blissfully unaware that Buy the Sport defeated colts in the International Trial. Having held her own against some good fillies in group races on turf since then, Buy the Sport would have been value in the Gazelle at 10-1, especially since she was getting eight to nine pounds from the three Grade 1 winners.

The nice second-place finish of Hold That Tiger in the Woodward provides further evidence of the Coolmore's desire to excel in American dirt races. A Storm Cat colt, Hold That Tiger has been outclassed on turf by the likes of Falbrav and Refuse to Bend this season, but appears to fit well among older American dirt horses. He is back at Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle yard, preparing for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Moon Ballad fits the Buy the Sport pattern. The Dubai World Cup winner, Moon Ballad has been chasing top-class turf runners in Europe since his victory in the world's richest race, just as Buy the Sport was after her International Trial victory. If, like Buy the Sport, Moon Ballad is five to eight lengths better on dirt than turf, he will be right there in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic.

More interesting from the turf-to-dirt point of view is Woodward winner Mineshaft. An A.P. Indy 4-year-old, Mineshaft is the latest in a growing list of European imports and re-imports - such as Aldebaran, Mizzen Mast, Skimming, Dare and Go, Tinners Way, Marquetry, Cardmania, and Lit de Justice - who have excelled on dirt after spending the early part of their careers on European turf courses.

European trainers and owners surely will have taken notice of Buy the Sport's victory last week, so we can expect more such invaders in future. Dirt tracks are in place at Deauville and Cagnes-sur-Mer in France. Deauville will have 11 days of racing exclusively on dirt in December and January, and France-Galop boss Louis Romanet is pushing for a dirt track to be installed at Longchamp.

Britain has three dirt tracks - at Lingfield, Southwell, and Wolverhampton, and while the quality of the races there is still generally low, it is improving every year. One of the big issues currently confronting British racing is whether to rip up Kempton Park's jumps courses and replace them with a dirt track.

Is there a way to determine which European horses might act well on dirt? Breeding is only one factor to consider and it is not necessarily the most important. Conformation, running style, and form must also be taken into account, as well as the horse's European trainer and the trainer who is getting the horse in America. The latter is crucial, as some American trainers simply do not know how to handle European imports, subjecting them to the comparatively stern American regimen immediately upon their arrival in this country.

It is now evident that there are any number of European runners who have never seen a dirt track, yet are capable of winning on dirt. Races at Deauville and Lingfield will reveal some of them. Others, like Tumblebrutus, the Aidan O'Brien-trained full brother to Giant's Causeway who goes in Sunday's Futurity at Belmont, are on the cutting edge of the international turf-to-dirt switch.