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Looking at the figures

Rating systems abound in thoroughbred racing by Robert Yates | April 11, 2008 at 3:17 a.m.

— Even a seasoned speed handicapper like Randy Moss occasionally stumbles onto something like the 2006 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, a race that defied his numbers-crunching logic.

The Essex, a $100,000 Grade III race for older horses, featured the return of multiple graded stakes winner Rockport Harbor, who scored a visually impressive wire-to-wire victory in his first start in almost 10 months.

But what had Moss scratching his head was the fact that Rockport Harbor's winning time of 1:47.68 for 1 1/16 miles was fractionally slower than Sayhellotolarry, a 3-year-old colt, needed to break his maiden a race earlier.

Then, that confusion went public.

When Moss released the numerical representation of each race's final time - aka the Beyer speed figure - Rockport Harbor received a 98 and 1 Saythellotolarry an 89, or 5 /2 lengths slower.

Welcome to the world of speed/performance ratings, where figures truly are in the eye of the beholder.

Beyer speed figures are carried in Daily Racing Form past performances, but Equibase and Brisnet also include speed ratings in a horse's running lines.

Thoro-Graph and Ragozin sheets produce much more detailed performance ratings.

Handicapper David Bell has been publishing computergenerated figures since 1980 on his tip sheet, "STATS" (Statistical Trends and Track Selections), which is sold at Oaklawn.

Even David Longinotti, Oaklawn's assistant general manager/racing, has dabbled with speed figures for more than a decade.

The basic fundamental for Beyer, Thoro-Graph, Ragozin, Bell and Longinotti is the same - figures are the product of how fast a horse runs, modified by how fast the surface was on that given day.

How they arrive at their conclusions can often be completely different.

"It's so subjective," said Moss, a Hot Springs native who is ESPN's lead horse racing analyst. "There are people that swear the Beyers are better than the sheets, and then there are people who say that they like the sheets because they like the way ground lost is factored in and the way the weight is factored in. It just all depends on personal preference."

Beyer speed figures, the most mainstream, have appeared in the Form since 1992. They were developed more than 30 years ago by Andy Beyer, the noted handicapper, author and columnist.

Moss and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette handicapper Rick Lee are part of a network of handicappers who compile Beyer figures for tracks across the country.

If it's a straightforward day, Moss said he normally needs about 20 minutes to assign figures for a track.

A little more time is necessary, he said, to unravel a day like Feb. 11, 2006, when Sayhellotolarry and Rockport Harbor ran within a half-hour of each other at Oaklawn.

Moss said it was "a very consistent day speed-figurewise" with a variant of plus-20, meaning he deduced the surface was 20 points slower than normal.

Variants are a numerical representation of the speed of the surface, based on actual running times compared to expected times.

The time of 1:47.42 for Sayhellotolarry and 1:47.68 for Rockport Harbor equated to raw Beyers of 69 and 66, respectively, on the scale used by Moss.

Since the surface was 20 points slower than normal, Moss assigned Sayhellotolarry an 89, but struggled with what to do with Rockport Harbor.

"If you apply that same variant to the Essex you get an 86," Moss said. "Now at that point, red flags start to go up."

Moss said it was implausible to think horses the caliber of Thunder Mission, Silver Axe, Cougar Cat, Greater Good, Matched, Real Dandy and Jonesboro all would go significantly off form in the Essex.


Thunder Mission, beaten 2 /4 lengths, would have received an 82 Beyer - equivalent of a solid claimer at Oaklawn- if Rockport Harbor had been awarded an 86.

"You began asking yourself, 'What could have happened to make that fig, to make that variant change, or to make that fig so slow?' " Moss said. "The first thing you look at is the race after - maybe the track changed. Maybe it got slower. Maybe it rained. Something happened."

Moss said the dawdling pace of the Essex (Rockport Harbor covered the first three-quarters of a mile in 1:14.07) probably played a large part in how the race became a case of "Beyer beware."

In Rockport Harbor's next start, the $150,000 Grade III Razorback Breeders' Cup Handicap on March 12, 2006, he reinjured his foot and finished fifth as the 2-5 favorite. He earned an 87 Beyer in the Razorback, and was retired after the race.

Moss said he still believes Rockport Harbor's projected figure was accurate, adding most cards are "usually pretty black and white."

"If you're good at it [making figures], you don't have many screwy days," Moss said.

Normally, Moss calculates his variant based on the lifetime figures of a horse, then projects a time he believes the race will be run in.

Moss said he only uses par times - an average of what horses in each class run - as a backup in making figures.

"It's the expectation of how fast they should run," Moss said. "Then I look at the final times to determine how fast they actually did run."

Beyers that appear in the Form only represent final-time ratings and can range from around 70 for a $5,000 claimer to 120, or higher, for a champion like Curlin.

Trips, weight carried or wind aren't factored into Beyer speed figures, but they are staples of performance ratings calculated in the Ragozin sheets and by Thoro-Graph, a company founded in 1982 by Jerry Brown.

Thoro-Graph rates performance of horses dating back four years. The lower the number, the faster the race.

In 2004, Smarty Jones earned a 0 when he won Oaklawn's $100,000 Southwest Stakes, a minus-3 when he won the $200,000 Grade III Rebel Stakesand minus-1 in winning the $1 million Grade II Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

Brown said Thoro-Graph is especially concerned about trips - horses breaking poorly, losing ground on the turns or encountering traffic - and moisture in the racing surface.

A former protege of Len Ragozin's sheets, Brown said there are specific changes at points around the track because of moisture in the surface.

"That's the single most important thing," Brown said. "Moisture content in the track is changing all the time because they're watering the racetrack or they're not watering the racetrack, or the sun is out, or it's windy, a building is casting shade. These things can effect moisture content.

"The bottom line in this stuff is moisture content affects track speed."

Brown said his eyes were opened to this phenomenon in the mid-1980s at Belmont Park in New York.

Brown said the first six or eight meets on Belmont's two grass courses played the same, then there was one meet "where they had nothing to do with each other."

"I had no idea what's going on," Brown said. "Both Ragozin and I had the same reaction. Ragozin, because he couldn't figure it out, was treating the two as if the two were the same speed. As soon I saw it, I said it was crazy. I split them."

Still searching for a concrete answer, Brown said he dispatched a Thoro-Graph representative to walk the courses and see if the distances were correct.

It turned out, Brown said, that the courses were being watered on different days.

"That's obviously going to have an effect on how fast they are," Brown said. "What that taught me was, No. 1, my reaction was correct, which is to trust the figures and not just assume things. And the second thing is that you never know what's going on. There's always information you don't have."

Brown said Thoro-Graph has contacts throughout the country who track ground lost on turns, poor breaks from the gate, traffic problems, wind speed and direction - and in best cases - when the surface is watered.

Scott Jester, a media relations assistant at Oaklawn, is Thoro-Graph's eyes in Hot Springs.

Jester notes how often the surface is watered, the direction the infield flags are blowing, the path, or lane, horses take on the turn and any trouble.

A path is roughly the width of a horse.

In Thoro-Graph's dictionary, each path off the rail equals 1 length of ground loss.

Jester relies heavily on video replays to glean information, which he normally sends to Thoro-Graph's New York City office within 24 hours after the race is run.

Brown said he usually generates a performance rating three or four days after a race.

Moss, on the other hand, needs just minutes to whip out a Beyer.

Which one is right? Depends, of course, on who you ask.

"We're always pretty much locked into our figures," Moss said. "Maybe out of curiosity you sometimes might say, 'What would the sheets do in this particular spot?' But most of the time, it's pretty straightforward. But when you do get a race like the Essex, it can be a little tricky."

Sports, Pages 27 on 04/11/2008


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