05/22/2013 2:18PM

Dick Jerardi: Preakness a tough one to figure

Barbara D. Livingston
Oxbow ran the race of his life winning the Preakness.

Oxbow’s Preakness resulted in the slowest winning time since 1961. Seemed on the surface like a very weak race. So how did Oxbow earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 106, better than Orb’s highly praised Kentucky Derby (104 Beyer Figure) and the third highest figure for a Triple Crown race in the last five years?

The time of a race is influenced as much by the speed of the track as by the ability of the horses, and the Pimlico track on Saturday – though officially labeled fast – was very slow compared with days of other Preaknesses. When Curlin ran the 1 3/16 miles in 1:53.46 in his 2007 Preakness win and earned a 111 Beyer, the surface was three full seconds faster than the one Oxbow raced over when he ran it in 1:57.54.

The data from Pimlico last Saturday also strongly suggests the track slowed down even more for the final race of the day. And it might have been slowing down before that, just in time for the Preakness.

Andrew Beyer makes the figures for the Maryland circuit and readily admits that Saturday was a day with conflicting data.

Beyer said he was writing his column on deadline and just taking a cursory glance at the data, “and I wrote that this is one of the slowest Preaknesses ever.’’

By Sunday, when he took a longer look at the data, including the race after the Preakness, which was run much slower than would have been anticipated, Beyer came to a different conclusion.

The dirt races did not fit into the neat mathematical box that makes us feel most comfortable. The third race, a five-furlong race for 2-year-olds, was especially slow. So was the 13th race.

Making Beyer Figures is a mathematical exercise in trying to determine the speed of a racing surface. On the vast majority of racing days, the times of the races relate to each other. Under that circumstance, assigning a track variant is relatively simple. You compile the differences in times (we have converted those times into points) from what was expected. You average those times and you have your variant. You then add or subtract from the raw times and assign a speed figure for each race. The surface might be faster than normal or slower, but you know what it is.

Preakness Day was the kind of day that turns the science of making figures into art. And, with art, you have some doubt.

There was a significant headwind in the homestretch as the horses were warming up for the Preakness. Perhaps, a similar wind could have accounted for how slowly the horses finished in that five-furlong race. Like the Preakness, when the horses would have raced in the stretch for approximately 800 yards of a two-turn race that is 2,090 yards, the horses in the third race would have raced longer in the homestretch than the backstretch.

In six-furlong and 1 1/16-mile races at Pimlico, horses run approximately the same amount on the backstretch as they do in the homestretch.

The leader in the 2-year-old race, a horse who eventually finished second, ran the last eighth of a mile in 14.4 seconds, a really slow final 220 yards.

Oxbow’s first quarter-mile into that wind was 23.94 seconds. His last three-sixteenths of a mile was 19.4 seconds. Both fractions were head-shakingly slow without any context. The wind had to be a factor, as it certainly was in Oxbow’s final time.

The 13th race was also far slower than expected. It is unclear what happened there, but it was definitely slow.

The Preakness specifically was tricky because Oxbow clearly ran the race of his life, but, with an optimal circumstance (easy lead, no pressure) he was supposed to run the race of his life. Oxbow is now 3 for 11 lifetime. With a clear lead, he is 3 for 3. Without a clear lead, he is 0 for 8. That is not likely a coincidence.

The key horse in the Preakness was Itsmyluckyday, who finished second to Oxbow. Just as trainer Eddie Plesa had said, the colt hated the slop at the Kentucky Derby, when he ran 20 lengths off his best form. In the colt’s two January wins at Gulfstream Park, Itsmyluckyday earned figures of 102 and 104. He certainly appeared to run back to that form in the Preakness when he valiantly made a run at the loose-on-the-lead winner. With Oxbow’s 106, Itsmyluckyday earned a 103.

In a sometimes imperfect speed figure world, that put the race into rational perspective, including an adjustment for the effect of the wind.

“We don’t have a magic [wind] formula,’’ Beyer said.

We do have common sense. And we have hindsight when these horses run next and into the summer.

“There is no doubt that the track got much slower for the 13th race,” Beyer said. “We have no way of knowing if that slowing-down started with the Preakness. My conclusion was no, but, if it did, the [Preakness] number could have even been higher if the slowing down process started at the 12th.”

Now, why did Orb run so far off his Derby form? That is another question that has nothing to do with figures. The colt never looked comfortable on the inside, especially with horses just ahead and just to his outside. The inside was definitely not the place to be on Saturday. The pace scenario changed completely from the Derby. Instead of the suicidal pace attended by so many horses, Oxbow was loose in moderate fractions.

If you don’t think pace matters, consider that Orb beat Goldencents by nearly 50 lengths in the Derby, a half-length in the Preakness. And there was a nearly 19-length turnaround between Oxbow and Orb in two weeks.

And a better figure earned by a horse who, strictly by looks, appeared not to have run as strong a race as Orb had run in the Derby.

“Making this [Preakness] figure was not an exact science that we would like, but I believe if we are wrong on this number, we’re wrong by being low,’’ Beyer said. “It was an interesting exercise in fig-making.”