Until February Erwin Boy was the sort of horse a frustrated trainer would gladly put a cart before. Running over dirt courses in claiming and modest allowance races, the 5-year-old had lost 16 of 21 starts. Today he is the finest turf horse in the East—and could be the best in the U.S. He has been entered in six grass races and has won them all, going around turf courses as naturally as hoops around a barrel. His last three victories—in the Edgemere, Bowling Green and Tidal Handicaps at Belmont Park and Aqueduct—were worth $98,250. "I wish I could tell you why he likes the grass so much," says his trainer. Jim Conway. "But, truthfully, I just don't know."
In California every time Jockey Fernando Toro gets up on a turf horse, the odds go down. At Hollywood Park, which is supposed to "belong" to three jockeys—Willie Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Sandy Hawley—the 35-year-old Toro is king of the turf. On it he has had 37 victories compared to 24 for Pincay, 23 for Shoemaker and 22 for Hawley. Charlie Whittingham, the trainer who has earned $9,707,874 in California purses during the last five years, says, "Toro seems to be able to outmaneuver everybody on grass. He knows where to be at the right time. I really don't know what he does, but he wins."
In 1958 there were only three U.S. races worth $100,000 contested on grass. This year some 20 will have six-figure purses and at least 100 others will range in value from $20,000 to $75,000. Turf racing is flowering. On that count, at least, grass racing is understandable. Esthetically, it is a marvelous spectacle, with horses and their brilliantly clad riders competing on a lush ribbon of green instead of running on what looks like an unfinished stretch of interstate highway. Grass racing also prompts consistently close competition. But why that should be so is yet another enigma. Tommy Trotter, the handicapper and Racing Secretary at the New York tracks, recently tried to explain. "It could be." he said, "that the jockeys like to wait until the final quarter of a mile on the grass before making their moves and so come thundering to the finish in a pack. Horsemen love the turf because few horses get hurt on it, so the fields are large. Honestly, though, turf racing still baffles me."
Turf racing is as old as the thoroughbred sport in the U.S., dating to 1665, when the races at Hempstead Plains, N.Y. (near today's Belmont) were run over a grass track. The novelty then would have been a dirt track. That came later, a design especially to suit the dry weather and heavy use of courses in America. But it was not until 1953 that an official U.S. grass champion was named (Iceberg II). Even then, turf racing was barely competitive—the 1956 champion, Career Boy, won exactly one race on the lawn.
Turf racing's recent history, however, is remarkable. Johnny Longden rode the last winner of his fabled career on grass. The final two races of Secretariat's racing life were on turf. Round Table was able to earn $1,749,869 because he thrived on grass, winning 15 of 18 starts, but five-time Horse of the Year Kelso struggled on sod and won only one of his five major turf races.
The fan is usually as much at a loss as horsemen in trying to figure out grass racing. If a bettor pays $1 for the Racing Form in New York, he can get the lifetime turf record of each of that day's entries, but in the Chicago and California editions of the newspaper the records never appear. Naturally there is a lot of information floating around for free, which is about the right price. Nearly every idea anyone has about what makes a good grass racer or grass rider can be quickly shot down. MacKenzie Miller, the trainer of three of the last 10 grass champions, is a master at destroying turf myths. "People will tell you that the size of a horse's shoe has something to do with its success," says Miller. "That's poppycock! The first time a horse runs on grass nobody knows what he will do. But if he runs well the first time he will probably continue to do so. What it all comes down to is that some horses like it and others don't." For many horses who cannot win on dirt, grass becomes the course of last resort. It works for some but not all.
Trainer Elliott Burch, whose Run the Gantlet was the top grass horse in 1971, explains that the colt was put there because he didn't like dirt. "Every time I sent him out to race on the dirt I could hear him swearing at me." Burch says.
Last Saturday the $170,500 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Aqueduct drew a cumbersome field of 14 and so had to be split. MacKenzie Miller won one division with Fleet Victress and Elliott Burch won the other with Glowing Tribute. Erwin Boy is taking the summer off and won't race again until fall, probably starting in the Man o' War at Belmont in October.
Meanwhile, in the West, Toro continues to bring home his steady stream of winners, each success heightening the intrigue of grass racing. It doesn't seem to matter if the animal he rides is regally bred or eligible for a Hartz 2 in 1 collar: in his 143 races this year, he has earned a share of the purse a staggering 70% of the time, and in the 16 grass stakes run at Hollywood he has won five and been out of the money only four times. Does Toro have a secret? "On grass, horses accelerate faster," he says. "You have to get a horse into position earlier, but everyone knows that." Sandy Hawley says, "Fernando has confidence on the grass. He knows what he is doing; he saves an awful lot of ground."
Toro began his career in Chile, where half the races are on grass. So he may indeed have grown up learning the answer to a complicated form of racing still—after 300 years—baffling to U.S. horsemen. But like almost everything else about turf racing, even that theory falls apart: the original darling of grass racing was Jockey Heliodoro Gustines (the current rider of Forego), who learned his trade in Panama, where there are no turf courses.
One thing is clear. While MacKenzie Miller's and Fernando Toro's methods may be a mystery, their results certainly are not.