Saturday, January 17, 2009

Don't Blame the Figs

GOOD LUCK!! and have A GREAT DAY!!!

Crist Blog | January 15, 2009

The validity of Beyer Speed Figures has been questioned twice in the past week, and I'm bucking my usual inclination just to roll my eyes and button my lip. I'm all for skepticism and dissent, and as constant readers know, I like to challenge and explore the ins and outs of some figs myself, if only to illustrate the art as well as science that making them requires. Still, when the fundamentals of speed figures are misunderstood and misconstrued in a public forum, an attempt to set the record straight seems in order.
Last week in the New York Post, the former racing columnist Ray Kerrison took his annual shot at the Beyers in a column headlined "Speed Numbers Don't Add Up." I don't particularly disagree with his ultimate conclusion, that the whole of a horse's accomplishments exceeds the sum of its Beyers. I don't know anyone who would quarrel with that, which is why I found his argument that the figures might mislead Eclipse voters into supporting Commentator over Curlin to be a disingenuous assault on a straw man: Curlin will receive virtually every vote, as well he should.

The way that he got to that conclusion, however, was through an uninformed attack on the whole idea of speed figures, which are nothing but an attempt to modify raw times with an analysis of the speed of the racetrack that day:

"Here's the startling, irrefutable proof: Commentator ran the slowest Whitney in 42 years. Running over a track labeled fast, the chestnut ran the nine furlongs in 1.50.1. You have to go back to 1966 to find a slower Whitney, when Staunchness, under Ernie Cardone, won it in 1.50.2.

Question: How could Commentator run the slowest Whitney in nearly half a century and have it hailed as the single greatest speed performance of 2008? This is bizarre. Put another way: How could Midnight Lute run the fastest Breeders' Cup Sprint in 25 years and earn just 112, while Commentator runs like a snail in the Whitney and gets a 120? The more you examine it, the crazier it gets....If Commentator had run over a plowed field, perhaps a case could be made for his Whitney 120. But the track at Saratoga that day, according to Daily Racing Form, was fast."

What Kerrison finds to be irrefutable proof that the numbers are "wrong" is precisely what makes them necessary: The fact that different racing surfaces, and the same racing surfaces on different days, can play intrinsically faster or slower and thus produce raw times that can not be reliably compared.

As most horseplayers know, when a track is labelled "fast" in DRF's or anyone else's past performances, it does not necessarily mean that the track was especially quick that day -- only that it was not sufficiently compromised by weather to be labelled good, muddy, sloppy or frozen. It is entirely possible for the slowest Whitney in 42 years to earn a higher speed figure than the fastest BC Sprint if the Saratoga track is slow and the Santa Anita track very fast, and that was exactly the case on those two days.

The larger point is that speed figures are not overall performance figures meant to provide a comprehensive assessment of a racehorse's quality and accomplishment, which is why Curlin will outpoll Commentator by at least a 50 to 1 ratio.

Commentator, in a vacuum, may be the fastest racehorse we've seen in a decade. He has earned four Beyers of 119 or higher. He also is unsound and inconsistent, and needs things to set up perfectly for him to deliver one of those freakishly fast performances. He is a cool and admirable horse for other reasons, such as coming back from multiple injuries, and winning a Grade 1 race as a 7-year-old. No one is trying to make him an undeserving champion on the strength of his raw brilliance, but it would be crazy not to acknowledge that brilliance.

A more interesting and thoughtful challenge to the Beyers was posted yesterday at the excellent blog Kennedy's Corridor, where the question was confined to the much-debated issue of how slow the figures were in most of last year's major races for 3-year-old males. The author proposes that the old-style "speed ratings/track variant" figures we still publish in DRF present a kinder and perhaps more accurate assessment of those races. He illustrates how the SR/TV's were in line with historical norms while the Beyers tailed off.

Two problems here. First, the SR/TV is a crude tool, employing a mechanical system of calculating a variant that ignores the distances of races and the quality of racing on a given card. (We continue to publish them primarily as a courtesy to a generation of players that grew up on them.) Second, the method is particularly shaky at tracks that have been entirely resurfaced in recent years -- places like Keeneland and Santa Anita, where synthetic surfaces were installed and then were significantly quickened up for last year's spring meetings, which offered numerous Derby preps. For example, Santa Anita times were being compared only to the previous year's Pro-Ride races for purposes of the "speed rating,"

There's also a very solid case to be made from every other point of reference -- raw times, any of the many sets of independently-produced speed figures, the naked eye and common sense -- that last year's 3-year-old males were simply a slow and spotty bunch and deserved the low figures they repeatedly received, especially once you got beyond Big Brown. Even if you think Big Brown was in the same league as Curlin, the 2007 3-year-old champ, can you really argue that the next-best American-based colts -- Colonel John, Denis of Cork, Tale of Ekati -- were anywhere near as good as Street Sense, Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday a year earlier?

That doesn't mean they aren't all nice horses or that others in the class of 2008 can't come forward to run fast races in the future. And we're still all learning exactly how to gauge synthetic-track performances where final times may be blurred by different race and pace dynamics. But I've seen nothing to suggest that speed-figure methodology has anything to do with the extremely high likelihood that the best 3-year-olds of 2007 were a better -- and faster -- bunch than the best of 2008.

GOOD LUCK!! and have A GREAT DAY!!!

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