By Bill Heller
Preparing a horse for his first start on turf is trickier than most people realize. Most tracks ban maidens from their grass courses, and many allow only grass stakes-nominated horses who have not made their last start against maidens or claimers to work on the turf course.
On Saturday, June 14th, 14 first-time turfers were entered at Belmont Park; one at Monmouth Park; one at Churchill Downs; nine at Delaware, eight at Philadelphia and three at Hollywood Park. On Colonial Downs' all-turf card, 35 starters were making their grass debuts. Of the 71 first-time turfers across America, only two had a workout on grass.
"I don't think it's very important," said California based Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella "If they like it, they like it right away. If they don't, they don't." When asked if he's ever trained any grass stars who hadn't even galloped on turf before racing on it, Mandella said, "The Tin Man. His first start ever was on grass."
Mandella paused a second. "But he had about a year and a half in Kentucky in a big paddock," Mandella laughed. "I said that as a joke, but it's something they grow up doing. It's pretty natural for them.
" It sure was for The Tin Man, whose sire, Affirmed, had never raced on turf. After overcoming two bowed tendons which required surgery when he was two years old, The Tin Man became one of America's outstanding grass horses, capturing the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial and the American Handicap twice, the San Louis Obispo Handicap, the Arlington Million, the San Marcos, and, at the age of nine, the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile. He finished his career with 13 victories, seven seconds and two thirds from 30 starts and earnings of more than $3.6 million.
New York trainer Rick Violette, Jr., also trained a Grade 1 grass stakes winner who had never worked on it before winning a race, Man From Wicklow. "He was very disappointing on dirt," Violette said June 7th. "And, actually, he was disappointing on the grass the first few times as well. We finally put blinkers on him and he sprouted wings.
" In his first two starts on dirt in 1999, Man From Wicklow, finished fifth in an allowance race and 11th against maidens. Switched to grass, he was seventh, eleventh and eleventh (which could be thought of as a work on grass). When Violette added blinkers, the horse still didn't win, checking in fifth in a maiden race at The Meadowlands. But in his seventh lifetime start, a maiden race at Belmont Park, he finally clicked, winning by three-quarters of a length.
In the winter of 2002-2003, Man From Wicklow won the Grade 2 W.L. McKnight Handicap at Calder and the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap by 4 ¾ lengths, easily the best performance of his life. Not bad for a horse who finished 11th three times before breaking his maiden. "It can happen," Violette said. "Marquette, who got beat 40 lengths on the dirt, I ran him as a maiden against winners at Gulfstream and he broke his maiden.It can be a dramatic reversal of form."
Both ways. Cigar was an ordinary horse on grass and an extraordinary champion on dirt.Most trainers never get to train such stars, but all trainers have maidens and young horses. Some of them are better on grass; others on dirt. Finding out which they prefer may not happen until later in their career. In the beginning, it's easy to see how inexperienced horses perform on dirt or on a synthetic track simply by working them on it. That's an option not available to maiden grass runners unless they're stabled at training centers with turf courses.
Barclay Tagg, who is having a phenomenal spring/summer meet at Belmont Park, says most of his maiden grass winners never worked on turf first. "Absolutely, mostly all of them I had for the last 30 years I trained," he said. "Because I didn't have anywhere to work them on the grass. They don't usually let you have a grass work unless you're down at Palm Meadows Training Center (in South Florida) for the winter. Nowadays, I try to get them all a grass work down there. I don't really think you need a grass work for them, but if you can do it, fine. But at most racetracks you can't do it. They won't let you on it with a maiden.
" Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey wasn't sure whether his first-time starter Tourism would handle grass or not when she made her debut in the sixth race at Belmont Park, June 6th. The three-year-old filly is by Seeking the Gold out of the Pleasant Colony mare Resort, and she had never even galloped on grass. "This filly here, we couldn't have her on the turf at Belmont; maidens can't go on grass," he said. "So she had never been on it before. But there was a race going seven-eighths the other day, and I had another filly I wanted to run there. So I knew this race was coming up. So I said, `Well, let's go on and give it a try'. Being by Seeking the Gold, she probably should like it."
Just like all of McGaughey's young horses, Tourism had been thoroughly prepared for her debut. She showed workouts in the Daily Racing Form from mid-February through late March at Payson Park in Florida, then seven workouts at Belmont Park. McGaughey rarely works first-time starters quickly, but Tourism's final work was a sharp one, four furlongs breezing in :48 3/5, the 19th fastest of 50 horses working that morning at that distance on Belmont's main track.
Tourism loved the turf. Breaking from the rail and benefiting from an excellent ride by new Hall of Famer Edgar Prado, Tourism got through on the inside and won her debut narrowly.
If Tourism had made her debut at Saratoga, she might have had a grass work first. In New York, maidens are barred from working on grass at Belmont Park, but that's not true at Saratoga Race Course, thanks to the Oklahoma Training Track turf course. "Saratoga is a little different because of the training track," Race Secretary P.J. Campo said. "Maidens can work on it any time. On the main course, maidens are not allowed during the meet. We don't want 100 horses to go over there every week. We work Monday, Wednesday and Friday."
During the six-week Saratoga meet from July 23rd through September 1st, McGaughey will work his first-time turf maidens on grass. "At Saratoga, I will, just to see," he said. "Sometimes, a change in atmosphere helps them."
The day after Tourism scored for McGaughey, George Weaver and Keith O'Brien sent out first-time turfers in a $57,000 New York-bred maiden grass race at a mile and an eighth at Belmont. Weaver's Beyond Challenge had been beaten badly in three dirt starts. O'Brien's Imperial Way had a pair of thirds, a sixth and a fifth in four dirt starts.
Because Beyond Challenge was stabled at the Oklahoma Training Track, Weaver was able to give him a grass work, and he went four furlongs around dogs (pylons) in :50 1/5, 11th best of 16 at that distance on the grass course that morning. Imperial Way had not worked since finishing fifth in his last start. Neither excelled on grass. Beyond Challenge finished eighth and Imperial Way 10th.
Like Weaver, trainer Tom Bush is more inclined to work first-time turfers on grass at Saratoga. "Every trainer at Saratoga utilizes that option," he said. "Some horses, you like to see them on the turf before you run them."
He wanted that look at Belmont for A Zero Trap, a three-year-old New York-bred colt by Quiet American out of Gold 'n Sugar by Java Gold, who had won his debut by a neck, then finished third and fourth in three dirt starts.
Bush gave A Zero Trap a grass work at Belmont before he made his grass debut in a $49,000 non-winners of two allowance race for New York-breds at Belmont Park, June 12th. A Zero Trap breezed four furlongs around dogs in :50 4/5 on a good Belmont turf course, 15th best of 20 that day. Then Bush breezed him on dirt, and A Zero Trap went four furlongs in :49 4/5, 14th fastest of 21.
"I had nominated him to a turf stakes, probably one I won't run in, so I could work him on grass," Bush said the morning of the race. "He hits the ground pretty hard, this horse. He's kind of big and chunky, a heavy, thick kind of horse. My hope is that he can stay sounder on turf if he likes it." He didn't. The grass work didn't help. A Zero Trap finished 10th.
Regardless, Bush said, "I've actually had a few surprises recently, horses that did well on turf. Sweet Madness, who is by Freud, she fit the profile. She's kind of long and has big feet, too."
Gary Contessa, New York's leading trainer and the country's sixth leading trainer in earnings halfway through 2008, is less enthusiastic about turf works for first-time turfers. "If the turn is open on the day that I was planning to breeze them at Saratoga, I will," he said. "But I don't have to. It's not a prerequisite. The ones that I think are going to run well on the turf generally do anyway. I think horses are either naturals on it or not."
Violette voiced a similar opinion: "Sometimes, it can give you a little bit better educated opinion on whether they're going to adapt to turf or not, but it's not necessary to work them out there. I don't really know that it's an edge. I think, a lot of times, pedigree and the way they look and their running style is more important than works on the grass, because I really do think they either like it or they don't. I really think it goes to, a lot of times, just the female family. If they have some turf there, you might have a good shot they'll like it."
Racing principally in Florida and New York, Violette's horses work mostly on dirt, even those about to make their grass debut. How first-time turfers who have been racing on a synthetic course will fare in their grass debuts is still conjecture. Will they do better than first-time turfers who have raced on dirt? "Well, it seems like more grass horses like the synthetic; I'm not sure about the reverse," Violette said. "You would think it would be true." There's only one way to find out.