03/29/2012 12:15PM

Beyer: Looking for the next Triple Crown star

Barbara D. Livingston
Union Rags has a best career Beyer Speed Figure of 95, a level of performance that wouldn’t make him a Kentucky Derby contender even in a dismal year like 2011.

Thoroughbred racing badly needs a 3-year-old star.

The sport’s popularity – as everybody knows – has been declining for years. Racing gets minimal attention on network television, and it has disappeared from most sports pages during most of the year.

And yet one part of the game remains remarkably strong: the Triple Crown series. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes still attract huge crowds and widespread media coverage. They can stir the interest of the public at large – particularly when a charismatic horse such as Rachel Alexandra, Funny Cide, or Smarty Jones is involved in the competition.

Will there be such a horse in 2012? Racing fans will be scrutinizing the key prep races over the next three weekends and looking for Derby candidates, but it is by no means certain that any worthy 3-year-old will emerge from them.

There was no star in the 2011 Triple Crown series, which turned out to be one of the weakest in decades. The three races were all dismayingly slow, and none of the winners – Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Ruler On Ice – went on to capture another stakes of consequence. The 2010 series, with the Kentucky Derby won by the forgettable Super Saver, wasn’t much better. If the public and the media start to believe that the Triple Crown races are not great and meaningful events and are not worthy of attention, the sport will be in ever deeper trouble.

That’s why lovers of racing will be rooting for a horse – any horse – to excel in the important prep races that will be contested over the next weekends, beginning with Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. The $1 million race pits Union Rags – the top-rated colt on most lists of Kentucky Derby candidates – versus the formidable El Padrino.

Union Rags would have a perfect record but for a photo-finish loss after a wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – a result that cost him the 2-year-old championship. He came back to win his 3-year-old debut in impressive fashion at Gulfstream. But as a speed handicapper, I have to harbor some reservations about Union Rags. His best Beyer Speed Figure to date is 95 – a level of performance that wouldn’t make him a Kentucky Derby contender even in a dismal year like 2011. El Padrino – the best of trainer Todd Pletcher’s many good 3-year-olds – has finished strongly to win his two starts this year with figures of 100 and 98.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I expect Union Rags to advance to a new level Saturday. Trainer Michael Matz doesn’t ask his horses to deliver too much too soon; he proved with Barbaro in 2006 that he knows how to prepare a horse to produce a maximum effort in the Derby. When Union Rags captured the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream last month, he looked as if he had plenty left in the tank. Despite his modest speed figures, he has the potential to stamp himself as a genuinely top-class horse.

Another crucial prep-race confrontation will occur April 7 in the Santa Anita Derby, when Creative Cause has a rematch with Bodemeister. The 3-year-olds in California appear to be a deeper, more talented group than their counterparts in the East, and Creative Cause ran a strong race – earning a speed figure of 102 – to beat Bodemeister by three-quarters of a length in the San Felipe Stakes last month. Creative Cause had the advantage of being a seasoned competitor – he finished a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall – while Bodemeister was making only his third career start and his first in a stakes. With triple-digit speed figures in two of his three starts, Bodemeister is obviously a prodigy, and he is in the hands of the most astute trainer of Derby horses, Bob Baffert. The key question about him – in the Santa Anita Derby and in the Triple Crown – is how much his lack of experience will handicap him.

Some of the other colts on most top 10 lists of Derby contenders don’t have persuasive credentials. Hansen, the champion of the generation as a 2-year-old, has never looked like a colt capable of going 1 1/4 miles effectively. Nor does the Baffert-trained Secret Circle, winner in five or his six starts, appear able to handle the Derby distance. I don’t understand the widespread enthusiasm for Alpha (with a career-best figure of 91), though he’ll get another chance to prove himself in the April 7 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

It is impossible to anticipate what might happen in the final round of prep races. In the modern era, most young horses are so lightly raced that they have great room to improve in the month before the Kentucky Derby. Horses such as Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), and Funny Cide (2003) were lightly regarded or totally ignored before delivering a strong performance in April; all won the Derby and went on to greater glory. A colt who is now virtually unknown could still turn out to be the racing star of 2012.

© 2012 The Washington Post

Robert Vaughan More than 1 year ago
The Arkansas Derby is the key race for the 2012 Derby via the Arkansas Handicapp.Bodemeister is the WINNER period!!
Robert Vaughan More than 1 year ago
The Arkansas Derby is the KEY to this Derby via the Arkansas Handicapp. Bodemeister is a LOCK in the Derby period!!
OwenJ More than 1 year ago
This crop of three-year-olds is the best I have seen in over a decade! Bodemeister is talented and has an astute trainer; Creative Cause, my selection is a bit quirky but proves he can stay and if ridden off what I predict will be a hot, if not suicidal pace, should be the winner of the Derby. I also think that Gemologist will give Creative Cause some concern. he has the foundation, the breeding, the trainer and the ability to stay forever. If for whatever Creative Cause does not win, I would look no further than Gemologist or the the well-bred Take Charge Indy who is is peaking at the right time!
Lenny George More than 1 year ago
50 years handicapping and Beyers came along... never used them.. Just need to know know how to handicap.. and it is not easy, thats one problem with the sport it takes alot to learn it...I like Union Rags, he's not a standout but is a race horse so far with classls
Jason Young More than 1 year ago
I actually like this year's crop because so many from the 2 year old campaign have made it this far..... its so competitive and unpredictable especially after the Florida Derby. More fun to watch this way
Standiforx More than 1 year ago
Earth to Andy Beyer: Bodemeister is going to run in the Arkansas Derby -- not the Santa Anita Derby. How long ago did you write this? Moreover, the 3-year old crop in Southern California does not stand out over anyone.
Fercho6668 More than 1 year ago
Despite the low Beyer figures, I truly believe Union Rags will win the derby, his 3 1/4 ragozin figure in the fountain of youth equaled his best and looked like he had something left in the tank, I didn´t expect him to win the Florida derby because I knew he was being pointed to the Roses, he ran well despite a rough trip and after switching leads late he finished less than two lengths behind a horse that had a perfect trip and a slow pace (47 and 1:12) to his favor, I don´t know the figure of the FD but it should be between 3 and 4, if Union peaks in Louisville you got yourself a Derby winner. I also like his running style, seasoning, pedigree, trainer, jockey (hopefully Castellano get back on), dosage index, center of distribution and the fact that he´d already ran at CD
Fercho6668 More than 1 year ago
He´d already run at CD
Fercho6668 More than 1 year ago
Everybody knows Beyer figures are outdated and old-fashioned, is like baseball stats, ERA won´t tell you the whole story but WHIP will, happens the same in horse racing, a beyer figure will give you an idea on how fast a horse is but Thorograph and Ragozin sheets (if you know how to read them) are far more accurate and tell you when a peak performance is likely to take place
Eddie More than 1 year ago
I cut classes in high school to go to the Atlantic City Race Course for a few races. I saw greats like Dr Fager, Mongo and Kelso run there. Later as I aged, I kept my interest in the Sport Of Kings, by going to Bay Meadows in the Bay Area. I secured emploment in the industry working a management position at a satellite wagering facility in San Jose, CA. I have seen a lot. 1.) My feeling has always been that the power brokers of this game never showed much appreciation of the mainstream supporters of the game. It truly became the Sport of Kings as it catered only to the super wealthy. I always made it a point in my job to go out and shake some hands and show gratitude to the customers who supported us. 2.) There are no really great horses any more because they retire early and never build up a real cadre of followers. They are not allowed to mature into the full athletes they can be because of the breeding money involved. 3.) Young people were never brought into the sport and opted instead for sports betting and online Hold Em poker. You reap what you sow. Now i just stay at home and watch and wager on my computer. Who needs to drive to the track with the gas expenses and pay admission, when i can sit in the comfort of my home. A Super Star 3 year old might peak some interest but I fear that riga mortis has already set in.
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Standiforx More than 1 year ago
Greg is absolutely right! Beyer figures are completely overrated.
Bobbie Smith More than 1 year ago
earth to both of you the byer figures are a guide not what to make your bet by maybe you both need some handicapping 101! I love you Andy and have always found your advice usefull!!