05/11/2014 8:26AM

California Chrome and his Derby Beyer


There has been a lot of talk about the historically low 97 Beyer Speed Figure California Chrome received for winning the Kentucky Derby, and I wanted to throw in my two cents on the subject.

Before I do, I should state that I am a big believer in speed figures, and have been making my own since 1976. I make my own to supplement Beyer Figures because it is indeed true that making speed figures is as much art as science. The relative speed of racing surfaces constantly change, sometimes during a single racing card, sometimes for reasons as mundane as the way a track is being watered between races. One figure maker will often handle these changes in relative surface speed differently than another might. That’s where the art component comes in, and is why you might see discrepancies in figs from different sources. But as much of a believer as I am in speed figures, and as dedicated as I am to them, I also know they are only one tool of many in the handicapper’s toolbox.

Commercial speed figures were first widely made available to the public in 1991, when The Racing Times included Beyer Figures in the past performances. And after all these years, two things about the public’s reaction to speed figures still surprise me. The first is how many people apparently don’t understand even the most fundamental aspects in how figures are made. The other is how people take figures so literally.

Some of the literal reaction to California Chrome’s 97 Derby Beyer – “he’s not any good,” and “the horses who finished behind him are even worse” – is disconcerting, because it shows an unwillingness to look beyond the superficial. The truth is, there are reasons to be very skeptical of that 97.

If only California Chrome, and just one or two others who finished prominently in the Derby, had fallen off Beyer-wise from their previous outings, and everyone else ran as fast as they did or improved on their last starts, then it wouldn’t have raised any red flags. There would have been no reason to be suspicious as to whether the Derby was indeed a slow race all on it’s own.

However, in this Derby, an incredible 15 of the 19 starters received lower Beyers than they did in their prior starts. In fact, it is incredible when such a large percentage of the field tails off Beyer-wise in any race, and is immediate cause to question the veracity of the winning fig.

The only ones who improved their Beyers in the Derby were Commanding Curve (who advanced to a 94 finishing second at Churchill after getting an 89 finishing third in the Louisiana Derby), and Harry’s Holiday and Vinceremos. And the Beyer improvements in the Derby from Harry’s Holiday and Vinceremos are nothing but illusions, because they were coming off total non-performances in the Blue Grass, in which they were both beaten the length of the stretch. And We Miss Artie received the same 85 in the Derby he got in the Spiral in his last start.

Every other starter in the Derby ran slower than he did in his prior start. It is completely counterintuitive for so many horses to fall off this way, and on the rare occasions when it happens, it begs for an explanation.

You don’t have to look far for a good one. Derby Day in Louisville was sunny, windy, and dry. There was a two hour and 43 minute gap between the previous main track race and the Derby, and the last time the main track was watered was after the Derby field walked over from the backstretch, which I would estimate to be somewhere around 30 minutes before the Derby was run. It seems completely logical to conclude that, given the perfect storm of drying conditions (wind, sun, low humidity), Churchill’s main track for the Derby was drier and slower than it was for the earlier main track races.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say that the 97 winning Beyer assigned to the Derby is unassailable. If California Chrome had never run faster than that uninspiring number before, then it could be argued with merit that he is nothing special, and that the horses he decisively beat on Derby day are worse than that. However, that 97 Derby Beyer does not exist in a vacuum. The fact is, California Chrome has run faster – much faster – and did so in his prior two starts when he earned a 107 Beyer for winning the Santa Anita Derby, and a 108 for winning the San Felipe.

My take is, California Chrome was clearly the best horse winning the Kentucky Derby, and in this particular case, it doesn’t matter if he ran fast, or not. We already know California Chrome is fast. He already has run fast. Twice. And that is still more than can be said so far for any his contemporaries.