09/25/2005 11:00PM

Breeders' Cup holding up, Beyers say


NEW YORK - There has already been a lot of hand-wringing over the potential quality of the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park, and it is easy to see why. Because of retirement, or injury, or illness, or death, such important stakes horses as Ghostzapper, Roses in May, Eddington, Bellamy Road, Commentator, Offlee Wild, Badge of Silver, Giacomo, Closing Argument, Declan's Moon, Madcap Escapade, Andujar, Two Trail Sioux, Splendid Blended, Smuggler, Sweet Catomine, Round Pond, Summerly, Spun Sugar, Sis City, Pico Central, Saratoga County, Forest Danger, Egg Head, and Kitten's Joy will not be participating in this Breeders' Cup. And there is still time for the list to grow, with Afleet Alex perilously close to joining it.

Will this Breeders' Cup be the weakest in the event's glorious 22-year history? There is no question the day will suffer without the horses mentioned above, but is the perception that this will be the worst Breeders' Cup ever really close to reality?

The only way to answer these questions is in some sort of scientific fashion. Perhaps the most objective measure of quality in racing is running time, because it is an immutable truth that good horses run faster than inferior ones. An even better measure is running time adjusted for the relative speed of the surface over which horses race, which is the core of Beyer Speed Figures. So, what I did was create a Beyer Figure study of the fields entered in the last four Breeders' Cups - in 2001 at Belmont, 2002 at Arlington Park, 2003 at Santa Anita, and 2004 at Lone Star.

I took the most recent five Beyer Figures earned by every horse in each of those Cup races and averaged them out. If a horse had less than five Beyers (as was the case for many European horses and 2-year-olds), I averaged the Beyers they had, as long as they had at least two. Then, I eliminated the horses with the highest and lowest Beyer average in each race, and took an overall average of the remaining horses' Beyer average, resulting in a Beyer Breeders' Cup race average, which I think is a pretty accurate and objective assessment of the strength of each race in the last four Breeders' Cups. Finally, I did the same for the potential fields in this year's Cup, acknowledging that these averages lack the results of the final prep races to be run in the next two weeks. I used the top 10 contenders for each race as they appear in last Friday's edition of this paper, making a few changes in races where defections have since become known. Here is what I came up with:

Distaff - The highest Beyer race average at 99.7 was, not surprisingly, the 2002 Distaff, won by Azeri in her Horse of the Year season. The lowest was last year's at 95.7. The Beyer race average for the potential field this year currently stands at 93.9, putting it well below par.

Juvenile Fillies - The strongest Beyer race average was 84.9 in 2001, the year Tempera won. The weakest was 77.5 last year. This year's potential Beyer average is near par at 79.1.

Mile - The highest average at 103.5 was in 2002, the year of Domedriver's upset. The weakest was 100.6 in 2001. This year's potential Beyer average, albeit with a small sampling, is well above the average for the last four years at 104.9.

Sprint - The highest average, by far, was 107.4 when Squirtle Squirt won in 2001. The lowest, by far, was 99.6 in 2003. This year's potential average is close to par at 102.5.

Filly and Mare Turf - The strongest average was 100.9 in 2003 when Islington won. The lowest, by a hair, was 96.6 last year. This year's potential average is 98.7, above par.

Juvenile - The highest average at 88.5, believe it or not, was last year when Wilko scored his upset. The lowest was 76.8 in 2003. The potential Beyer average this year is 86.4, which is above par.

Turf - The best Beyer average was 104.5 when High Chaparral won for the first time in 2002. The worst was 100 in 2001. This year's potential average, also with a small sampling, is well above par at 105.2.

Classic - The highest and lowest averages here are a bit of a surprise. The strongest, at 107.1, was in 2003, when Pleasantly Perfect won, and the weakest at 103, despite the perception of the field being very strong, was last year when Ghostzapper won. The potential Beyer race average for this year is 102.1, well below par.

The results of this study, while seeming to be a mixed bag, are actually slightly encouraging. Four of this year's eight Breeders' Cup races have the potential - on average Beyers - to be stronger than they were the last four years, although it should be noted that two of them, the Mile and Turf, had small samples, and threaten to have potent European horses in them. It is also encouraging that the Sprint is one of the two races close to par, considering the losses it has suffered. But it is no surprise that the two races that are potentially most weak in comparison to the last four years are the Distaff and Classic. While it is unfortunate that these races fall into this category - especially the Classic, the marquee race of the Breeders' Cup - all you have to do is look at the long list of major defections to understand why.