05/02/2011 4:34PM

Derby by Numbers

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It was only a few years ago that Kentucky Derby entrants who had not run a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure were widely dismissed as outsiders. Giacomo went off as the 14th choice at 52-1 in 2005 in part because his best Beyer coming into the race was a 98. This year, a 98 is the fastest last-out figure in the field.

Of course there's more to picking a Derby winner than being literal-minded about figures, but there's no getting around the fact that the Beyers for this year's major Derby preps are extremely light in comparison to those of the past decade. As the chart below illustrates, the four most significant preps received figures of 93 to 98 this year, an average of 95.5 as compared to a 2001-2011 average of 102 and a range of 99 to 108. (I've excluded the fifth Grade 1 prep, the Blue Grass, which would widen the gap even more, as both the quality of winners and their figures have declined sharply since the race was switched to Polytrack in 2007.)

 

In all, 27 of those 44 races were won with triple-digit Beyers, and in each year from 2001 through 2010, at least two of the four races got 100+ figures. This year, none.

This doesn't mean that it's fair to say quite yet this is a bad crop, or that four data points in any given year are a true reflection of the quality of the group. The 2007 average of just over 100 provided no clue as the high quality of that year's Curlin/Street Sense/Hard Spun-led sophomores. That horses are making fewer starts before the Derby is also a factor -- you would expect a horse to run faster in his 8th or 12th career start than in his 4th or 5th. And you could argue that there have already been a healthy number of very fast performances from this crop (Bind, Maclean's Music, The Factor, Travelin Man, Uncle Mo) in the last six months -- just not at nine furlongs.

Despite those disclaimers, it's definitely a different kind of Derby when the presumptive morning-line favorite, Dialed In, comes off a Florida Derby victory that earned a lowly 93 Beyer. The only other sub-99 Florida Derby in the last 15 years was the one won by Friends Lake with a 92 in 2004: He finished 15th at odds of 18-1.

So what's a handicapper to do? There are at least three strategic paths to choose from (though I expect and invite readers to suggest others) as Derby Week begins:

1. Ignore the low figs on the theory that it's all relative -- what does it matter if they're all running in the mid-90's instead of the mid-100's?

2. Take the low figures as a harbinger of especially chaotic results, play against horses such as Dialed In who will be short prices depite low figs, and shoot for a bazillion-dollar superfecta.

3. Forgive Uncle Mo's Wood Memorial as the result of a bad day or a tummy ache, decide that his best races at 2 are better than anyone's performances at 3, and be grateful for 4-1 instead of the 6-5 he'd be if he'd won the Wood by daylight.