05/04/2004 12:00AM

Derby prep figures hold up


BOSTON - Familiarity breeds contempt. Or so they say. And we can find support for this old saw in the attitudes of some horseplayers toward the Beyer Speed Figures. As these players become more and more familiar with the Beyer Figures, they seem to become more and more skeptical of their accuracy. And quite vocally skeptical, to boot.

Perhaps a sort of proprietary mentality has developed among the betting public - a comfortable familiarity that comes from using the Beyer Figures day after day, and that seems to encourage some players to accept or reject or even refigure the numbers as they see fit.

Whatever the root of this feeling, there is no question that during this year's run-up to the Kentucky Derby the doubts sprouted up like weeds in a well-tended garden. The skepticism seemed contagious. Some argued that the Florida Derby figure was much too low. Others said that the Arkansas Derby number was too high. Some insisted that the Wood Memorial figure had to be wrong. Others questioned the number in the Blue Grass. Even the Beyer for the Santa Anita Derby became a target for doubters.

Now that the Derby has been run and the emotions have subsided, perhaps a reasoned response to the doubters would be helpful.

What follows here should not in any way be taken as a claim of infallibility for the Beyer Speed Figures, or an arrogant dismissal of all criticism of the Beyer Figures. Nor do I intend to play down the unusually troublesome problems involved in calculating some of the prep-race figures this year. But I do want to take a careful look at all the doubts, and defend the overall validity of the pre-Derby Beyer figures.

Wood Memorial: I simply don't understand why anyone ever questioned the accuracy of the 98 Beyer Figure for this year's Wood. It was in perfect alignment with the previous figures of many of the runners. Eddington had earned Beyers of 97-101-90 before the Wood, and he earned a 97 in the Wood itself. Swingforthefences earned 84-96-98 before the Wood, and then earned a 95.

The same was true for Master David, Royal Assault, and Little Matth Man. Furthermore, the first two Wood finishers, Tapit (98) and Master David (97), ran back in the Kentucky Derby and made no impact. They earned Beyers of 84 and 80, respectively, and finished ninth and 12th. The mediocre figure for this year's Wood field has so far been confirmed.

Florida Derby: Many players thought this 92 figure was too low. They pointed out that The Cliff's Edge earned only a 90 and then improved up to a 111 in his next start. And Tapit improved from an 83 to a 98. But you need to look at all the evidence. Here are the Florida Derby and next-race numbers for the rest of that field.

Friends Lake92, 54
Value Plus91, 84
Read the Footnotes86, 86
Farnum Alley85, 52
Smoocher 80, 59
Frisky Spider68, 79
Notorious Rogue66, 79

So, four horses ran much lower figures in their next start. Four horses ran much higher figures in their next start. And one horse repeated the same figure. Perfectly logical. There is no evidence here that would cast any doubt on the accuracy of the Florida Derby number. And Florida Derby runners did not shine in this year's Kentucky Derby, finishing fifth, seventh, ninth, and 15th.

Blue Grass: When we calculated the track variant at Keeneland for April 10, the Blue Grass just didn't fit in with the rest of the races. If it had been treated as part of the same overall variant, the Blue Grass figure would have been a preposterously high 116. Clearly, that number had to be isolated, evaluated separately, and then projected lower. So we made it as close to a 116 as would be consistent with the past figures of the horses in that race. We made it a 111. As the returning horses have demonstrated, the decision to make a separate projection for that race was correct.

Arkansas Derby: The problem here was quite similar to the Blue Grass. The variant for the day was -7. If included in that variant, the Arkansas number would have been a 111 - much too high. So we projected it as a 107 for the winner, Smarty Jones. When he came back to win the Kentucky Derby with a 107, and two other runners came back to run lower Beyers, the decision to project a lower number certainly looked like the right one. But we will continue to monitor the figure to make sure the projection is correct.

Santa Anita Derby: Imperialism ran a 100 Beyer in this race and came back to run a 98 in the Kentucky Derby. Quintons Gold Rush ran a 98 in this race and came back to win the Lexington with a 102 Beyer. Clearly, there's no reason for anyone to question the validity of this number.

The Beyer Speed Figures have an excellent record in recent Derby runnings. Top-Beyer runners have done extraordinarily well, and some have paid huge prices: War Emblem, Charismatic, Lil E. Tee broke the bank - and don't forget smaller fry like Fusaichi Pegasus, Silver Charm, and the Funny Cide-Empire Maker exacta. Speaking as someone who earns his living producing Beyer Speed Figures, I thought we had earned the benefit of the doubt, rather than ending up the target of so many doubts.

Many of this year's Derby preps were indeed hard to figure. So I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised at the many doubts expressed. But, at least so far, those doubts have proved unjustified.