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Kentucky Confidential

Class Dismissed: Beyers, Ragozins Flunk the Field

Archarcharch’s 98 Beyer for the Arkansas is one of the highest in the likely Kentucky Derby field. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In the beginning, there was only time and the winner’s circle. In the modern age of horse racing, however, revolutionaries have sought greater truths beyond the stopwatch and order of finish.

The Speed Figures of Andrew Beyer and Len Ragozin’s Sheets have become benchmarks for quantifying the ability of horses on the racetrack. Each rose to the top of the piles of handicapping tools because of their uncanny accuracy and practical application.

Beyer Speed Figures, unveiled to the public in Beyer’s book “Picking Winners,” published in 1975, are based on a system that takes into account the time of a race and the inherent speed of the racing surface to produce a numerical rating of each horse’s performance.

The “Rags” system, developed in the 1950s, is based on measurements of speed, weight, allowance for unusual track conditions, the placement of the horse during the race, prevailing wind, and track construction peculiarities.

Beyer’s figures, now published along with the past-performance data on every horse in The Daily Racing Form, are so ubiquitous, their once-startling power is now routinely taken for granted. The Sheets, used by trainers, owners and handicappers alike, are so valued, they cost $35 for a single day of races at one track.

What these peerless indicators of talent tell us about the field assembling for the 137th Kentucky Derby is not happy news if you like fast horses.

Beyer, who since the 1970s has written about racing for The Washington Post, has never been one to mince words.

“I would say this,” Beyer said, warming up. “With the exception of Uncle Mo’s 2-year-old performances, which were certainly outstanding, you look at the horses in this field and this is as bad as you will ever see in the Kentucky Derby.”

Len Friedman, the long-time head of The Sheets, was more gracious but equally as indicting. “They’re very solid, competitive … and slow.”

Beyer and Friedman have the numbers to back up their charges.

The spring racing season of 2011 is the first in at least the past 10 years in which not a single one of the six primary Kentucky Derby prep races — the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial — produced a Beyer Speed Figure of at least 100, which is approximately the cutoff number for a good graded stakes winner.

The Sheets numbers rank performance on a scale of 0 to 140 with the lowest ratings reflecting the best efforts. Negative ratings are possible, and, indeed, the average Grade 1 stakes-winning older horse achieves a score of -2 to 0. Grade 1 prep races for the Triple Crown normally produce ratings ranging between 2 to 4.

This year, the best number in all preps was a 3, achieved by Premier Pegasus in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 12 at Santa Anita. The best — and only 4 rating — in a Grade 1 prep came from Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby on April 16 at Oaklawn Park.

Archarcharch also recorded the best Beyer Speed Figure in a major prep — a 98. The rest were exceedingly uninspiring, according to the figures kings.

Dialed In, considered by many to be the likely betting favorite on Derby Day, earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure winning the Florida Derby. The previous six years, that race produced figures of 99-111-106-99-103-102.

“Over the years, the average winning figure for the (Kentucky) Derby is 109, and, typically, you want to see a horse run in the mid-100s to 105 going into the Derby to even take him seriously,” Beyer said. “Every major prep race this year, every horse in the Derby field that won a major race, ran in the 90’s. It’s just unprecedented.”

“They are much slower than in past years,” Friedman said. “There have been years where two or three horses in the Triple Crown preps ran 1’s or better. Bellamy Road did. Sweetnorthernsaint did. Big Brown did. I think the best anyone has run this year is a 4.”

Friedman dipped into The Sheets database and conducted an open review of the 3-year-old class, route runners and sprinters, colts and fillies. Normally such a query would produce 30 to 40 horses who had earned Sheets ratings below 4. This year there are eight. Only one, Kentucky Oaks candidate R Heat Lightning, had recorded a 3.

Friedman laughed. “Some of these horses are not relevant,” he said. “Basically, they ran one big number and disappeared. Most of them are sprinters. Other than Premier Pegasus (out with a leg injury), none looked like they had any classic quality.”

Beyer and the Sheets do not always align. Beyer dismissed Premier Pegasus’ performance in the San Felipe (“He got the perfect trip,” he said. “He was a big bet-against if he stayed healthy.”). Friedman in turn didn’t care much for The Factor, whom Beyer had awarded three straight Speed Figures of 100+ before the colt struggled home seventh in the Arkansas Derby and subsequently was withdrawn from Derby consideration.

“Loved The Factor,” Beyer said. “When he ran the giant number at Santa Anita, breaking his maiden with a figure of 108, I was enamored of him. I was rooting for him all the way because I like to see big figure horses go on to glory. He was one of the premier horses of his generation.

“There were two horses who had superior ability in this group — Uncle Mo and The Factor,” Beyer said. “Maybe down the line, The Factor is going to verify that. He’s going to be a terrific horse if he stays healthy.”

Both Beyer and Friedman considered Uncle Mo’s championship 2-year-old season superlative. His return to the races as a 3-year-old — a win in the fabricated Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park and then a debacle of a third-place finish at odds of 1-10 in the Wood Memorial — left them glum.

“I was sort of rooting for Uncle Mo,” Friedman said. “I thought there was a chance he could win the Triple Crown because he was so much better than everybody else that he could win the Preakness bouncing off the Derby and maybe have enough left to win the Belmont. The crop was so weak, and he was so much better. The last race (The Wood), though, was terrible. The race before was mediocre. You could forgive that, but that hasn’t historically been a great way to go into the Derby.”

Friedman pointed out that Secretariat earned a lowly Sheets rating of 12 when shockingly defeated by stablemate Angle Light in the 1973 Wood Memorial. Big Red rebounded in his sensational Triple Crown and peeled off a 0-3-0 Ragozin ratings run.

Asked if it can be ignored that the field is slow, Beyer fires back, “I certainly won’t. That’s my midweek column. I will address the weakness of the last two or three years. Is this an aberration or are horses getting worse?”

Friedman considered the subjects of race-day medications and the decline in training acumen and genuine horsemanship and was unconvinced either played a part in the quality of this year’s runners.

“If you go back 15, 25 years, there were plenty years like this,” he said.

Beyer said the uniformly slow figures of the horses should alert handicappers to be extra vigilant in their preparation for betting the Derby.

“If you leave out Uncle Mo, all of these horses have the same mediocre figure,” he said. “I don’t think any handicapper should lock himself in prematurely. More than I’ve ever done, I’m reading with keen interest the workout commentary from Mike Welsch in the Daily Racing Form and Bruno DeJulio at Grade One Racing. If somebody comes to Churchill Downs and just looks great and the clockers love him, it’s an indication a horse is stepping up from those 97s.”

Whether the field is fast or slow, features Secretariat or Super Saver, the crowds will pour into Churchill Downs because the Kentucky Derby is America’s premier Classic race, one of the most important, lucrative and exciting sporting events in the country.

“I don’t think most of the 150,000 people recognize the difference between a Derby with a figure of 115 and one with a figure of 100,” Beyer said. “In general, this race does legitimize stars, and if you have too many years of Super Savers, I don’t know what it does to the credibility of the Derby, but I do think, at this point, the Derby is pretty impregnable.”

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I count myself an SOB as mentioned but allow for the magic and mystery of the thoroughbred at the wonderland called The Kentucky Derby and besides the aforementioned numbers have an unusually large standard error of prediction; 19 straight years of losses by the favorites (1980-1999) proves that as the numbers are the main factors in determining the Derby favorites. So let’s listen to this great piece of poetry:

While you and I have lips and voices which are for kissing and to sing with who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure Spring with? E.E. Cummings

Posted by Greg Mendel on April 30, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

“2011 is the first in at least the past 10 years in which not a single one of the six primary KD prep races…produced a BSF of at least 100, which is approximately the cutoff number for a good graded stakes winner.”

The Radio & TV Ads for the 2011 Derby have been adjusted, and will start airing on Monday:

“The greatest FOUR minutes in American sports!”

Posted by Don Reed on April 30, 2011 @ 8:57 pm

Darn tootin’ Super Saver was a dismal chapter (ending) in the annuals of the Derby.

I STILL can’t believe that such a mediocrity crossed the wire first.

Or did 25 million people simultaneously see the same optical illusion?

Who did the race chart, M.C. Escher?

Posted by Don Reed on April 30, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

I think speed figures are a very valuable tool, but I have a problem with using them as the sole measurement of equine quality. They are a piece of the picture, not the whole picture.

Posted by Pete Denk on May 2, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

Author PhotoJohn Scheinman, a long-time writer and editor, covered thoroughbred racing for The Washington Post from 2000-09. He won the Red Smith Kentucky Derby writing contest for best advance in 2007. He is a correspondent for the Thoroughbred Times. Scheinman also has worked extensively in humor writing and sketch comedy. He lives in Washington, DC. More by  ›