06/27/2001 11:00PM

Despite a big figure, Burning Roma is found lacking

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ELMONT, N.Y. - When Burning Roma won the Leonard Richards at Delaware Park two weeks ago, it didn't come as a surprise to most horseplayers. After all, Burning Roma had finished a rallying fourth to be beaten just two lengths in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and he had already won three other stakes races this year, thanks to shrewd, realistic placement by his connections.

What was surprising, though, was the Beyer Speed Figure earned by Burning Roma for his 9 3/4-length triumph in the Richards. When "114" appeared in the DRF Simulcast Weekly index and also in the stakes recap box of Daily Racing Form's June 20 edition, there were plenty of double-takes and raised eyebrows. Burning Roma is a well-regarded 3-year-old colt, to be sure. But he has generally been considered a notch below the division leaders, and has earned upwards of $500,000 by being spotted judiciously in ungraded stakes races such as the Sam Davis, the Tampa Bay Derby, and the Sir Barton.

A 114 would put him in the same ballpark as the elite 3-year-olds, just off Monarchos's 116 for the Kentucky Derby. A 114 equals the figure earned by Point Given in the Belmont, and by Millennium Wind in the Blue Grass. It is faster than Point Given's 111 in the Preakness.

What gives? Did Burning Roma move into the realm of the elite with his performance in the Leonard Richards?

Handicappers in possession of reasonably accurate pace figures will tell you the answer is an emphatic "No"

I say "reasonably accurate" because few things will confound a horseplayer as much as the task of trying to come up with numbers that express how fast races went to the pace call - which is the half-mile time in sprints under a mile, and the six-furlong time in routes.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the following Quirin-style pace and speed figures are a reasonably accurate representation, consider again Burning Roma versus Point Given and Monarchos:

Point Given (Preakness): 112-115

Monarchos (Kentucky Derby): 109-112

Burning Roma (L. Richards): 105-112

These Quirin-style figures support the assertion of the Beyer figures that Burning Roma did indeed run a final-time number in the same league as Point Given and Monarchos. The glaring weakness is the comparatively low pace figure of 105.

This slow early-fast late "race shape" was also a trait of Burning Roma's two preceding wins: 104-107 in the Tampa Bay Derby; 99-105 in the Sir Barton.

Burning Roma will be forced to keep up with a faster early pace if and when he ventures into the ring with the heavyweights, and that usually translates into a lower final-time figure.

You don't have to be a pace-figure player to know that Burning Roma assumed the lead after a slow six-furlong fraction in the Leonard Richards. Simply by consulting the result charts in DRF Simulcast Weekly, one could see the 1:11.36 split from that race was virtually identical (1:11.39) to what 3-year-old entry-level allowance fillies ran in the very next race, also at 1 1/16 miles. Two races later, a 1 1/16-mile starter handicap for horses who had run for claiming tags of $12,500 or less required 1:11.68.

Pace figures can be a pain to maintain, but serious hobbyists can improve their overall game substantially by doing so, for several reasons.

* They add a second dimension to final-time figures. An exceptional pace, whether fast or slow, can explain how the final-time figure developed.

* They can be a powerful predictive tool in the lower-level claiming races that dominate most typical racing programs.

* They are not as widely used or appreciated as final-time figures, which often translates into superior wager-value.

* They can point out vulnerable favorites, and whether horses can survive a rise to the next class level.

Horses like Burning Roma with high final-time figures but low pace figures are frequently overbet. A good example may come to light in Saturday's Mother Goose, in which morning-line favorite Fleet Renee is the lone entrant to have surpassed the 100 plateau on the Beyer scale.

Fleet Renee earned a 104 when she upset Golden Ballet in the Ashland, but did so by pressing a relatively moderate pace, as had been the case in her three previous front-running victories at Aqueduct and Laurel.

Fleet Renee's win in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland featured a 1:12.91 pace call, which was nothing special for a Grade 1 race considering two races at the same distance earlier on the same card. A maiden special-weight route for 3-year-old fillies had contained a 1:13.14 pace call, and a second-level allowance for older fillies and mares had run 1:12.71.

Expressed on the Quirin scale, Fleet Renee's Ashland was rated as 102-105. In the Mother Goose, she meets several rivals who have run faster pace figures, including Mystic Lady and Tap Dance, who dueled in the Kentucky Oaks, and Forest Secrets, the on-the-pace winner of the one-mile Acorn.