03/02/2006 12:00AM

Divergent figures lead to dilemma


ARCADIA, Calif. - When two horses win in the same time, at the same distance, on the same day, at the same track, they typically earn speed figures that are the same.

But the winter meet at Santa Anita has not been typical. An unpredictable main track - it changes speeds throughout the day - has made it difficult to analyze performances based on the clock, and complicated the calculation of speed figures.

The dilemma has added signifigance Saturday afternoon when High Limit starts favored in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. High Limit is the only starter that recently has come within 5 points of the Big Cap par (a 116 Beyer Figure). But does High Limit's last-start Beyer (111) accurately reflect his ability? Or is the number inflated?

When High Limit won the Strub Stakes in a romp, it was one of only two route races on the Feb. 4 card. Calculating an accurate track variant for the Strub (race 7) and Sham Stakes (race 3) would have been simple if the surface produced consistent times. That did not happen Feb. 4.

Bob and John won the 1 1/8-mile Sham by more than four lengths in 1:49.15. Two hours later, High Limit won the 1 1/8-mile Strub by more than four lengths in 1:49.14. Same time, same distance, same day, same track. However, Andy Beyer later concluded that the speed of the track had changed.

He believes the 1:49.14 clocking by High Limit was achieved on a track that was several lengths slower than the track on which Bob and John ran 1:49.15. Beyer "split the variant" and calculated the figures as if the races were run on completely dissimilar tracks.

High Limit was given a 111; Bob and John earned a 98. Despite times that differed by only one-hundredth of a second, their respective speed figures differed by 13 points, a variance of about 1.50 seconds. Weather was not a factor. How is it even possible for a track to change that much?

It is a fair question heading into the Big Cap.

"There are plenty of times when I'll be the first to admit that I am uncertain about the correctness of a speed figure," Beyer said, "but in the case of Bob and John and High Limit, I am confident that our numbers are right.

"Even though their final times were almost identical, I cannot believe that Bob and John came close to running a figure like High Limit's 111," he said. "[Bob and John's] previous races had been 92, 93, and 85. Okay, maybe he improved, but what about runner-up Hawkinsville? His previous best was an 80. If you accept a giant figure for Bob and John, then Hawkinsville ranks among the nation's leading 3-year-olds."

Interestingly, Hawkinsville faces Brother Derek on Saturday in the Santa Catalina Stakes. Had the Sham earned the same figure as the Strub, Hawkinsville would enter the Santa Catalina with a 104. Beyer's analysis discounted that conclusion.

"On Feb. 4, I concluded that the track was much slower for the last three races - when High Limit won the Strub - than it was for the first three races on the card, when Bob and John ran," Beyer said.

It was not the first time it happened this winter. The start time for the Sham was 1:32 p.m.; start time for the Strub was 3:39. It makes a difference, according to track superintendent Steve Wood. He said new maintenance procedures have created a track cushion that is an inch deeper than last winter. He said the track is slower and safer, but admits, "With more depth, it's harder to keep consistent."

Wood pinpoints the time of day when the track changes: "Around 3:15, the moisture rises and the track becomes wet and gets dead, and people say, 'He changed it.' "

But Wood said he changes nothing. The harrows that smooth the track between races remain constant.

"The depth cannot change, but the moisture does change," Wood said. "It changes all the time."

While the intention of the deeper surface is safety, it creates chaos for handicappers who use the clock - speed figures - as a tool.

As for High Limit's 111, handicappers can either believe it or not. He beat Top This and That, whose 104 was about 12 points higher than usual. Third-place Giacomo, making his first start in eight months, earned a career-best 103. Yet fourth-place Greeley's Galaxy has validated the figure. He earned 96 in the Strub, and 95 in his next start, on Feb. 20.

Based on subjective, visual interpretation of the Sham and Strub, the speed-figure disparity makes sense. Bob and John's win was workmanlike; High Limit ran powerfully.

What does it mean Saturday? Bettors who trust the 111, and believe that High Limit can reproduce the number against a better field at a longer distance, will side with the Big Cap chalk.

Otherwise, the only logical alternatives are the only starters with Grade 1 wins at a mile and a quarter - Hollywood Gold Cup winner Lava Man and Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.