11/25/2009 5:35PM

Slower figures for Zenyatta?

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    I’m not weighing in on the Horse of the Year debate - yet. But allow me to offer this opinion: those who use Beyer Speed Figures as the primary gauge of Zenyatta’s talents are barking up the wrong tree.

    The effect of pace on Zenyatta’s figures, which is intertwined with the synthetic surfaces she primarily ran over, makes them useless in comparing her talent level to Rachel Alexandra's.

     Anyone who has computed speed or pace figs can testify that races with a fast pace are more likely to earn a higher final number. A one-mile race with a six-furlong fraction of 1:10 can fall apart in the final quarter-mile and end up with a final time of 1:37. But the same horses traveling in 1:15 would need a world-class finish to stop the clock at 1:38. In a nutshell, that describes the figure differences between Rachel and Zenyatta.

     Many of Zenyatta’s races were so hopelessly slow-paced, she couldn’t possibly have matched Rachel Alexandra’s dirt figures. And those paces were actually slower than many realize; synthetic tracks are typically faster than dirt tracks, thus a half-mile fraction of :49 at Santa Anita is more like :50 at Churchill Downs. Because synthetic surfaces are more kind to come-from-behinders, Mike Smith permitted Zenyatta to lag far behind those crawling paces. And Smith’s confidence in her superiority led him to usually take her six- to seven-wide, avoiding traffic but slowing her figures more. It is a testament to Zenyatta’s ability she ran the numbers she did.

     Could pace possibly make that much difference in final numbers? Absolutely.

     Zenyatta's half-mile pace figure in the 1 1/16-mile Lady's Secret was approximately 27 lengths slower than Rachel Alexandra's half-mile figure from the 1 1/8-mile Woodward. Think that might have impacted Zenyatta's final fig?

     Also, look at Life is Sweet, who employed a similar but somewhat less-dramatic running style as her stablemate Zenyatta, always finishing behind her, as did everyone else. When Careless Jewel was a runaway on the front end in Friday’s Breeders‘ Cup Ladies Classic, a synthetic stakes suddenly had a dirt-style pace scenario, and Life is Sweet’s Beyer Speed Figure leaped to a career-high 107.

     In the Classic, Zenyatta saw a more moderate pace than that, but it was Dr. Fager-like compared to what she was accustomed to. Her final figure was a 112, much more in line with what we might expect from, say, Rachel Alexandra.

     This doesn’t mean Zenyatta is better than Rachel Alexandra, or more deserving of Horse of the Year, just that speed handicappers should adjust their thinking this time around.

     In handicapping, speed figures are indeed the way, the truth and the light. But sometimes you need to know when to pull another club out of the bag.