05/18/2010 11:00PM

Hitting 100 becomes a racing rarity at Emerald

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AUBURN, Wash. - Top-end Beyer Speed Figures at Emerald Downs have declined markedly in recent seasons, a point underscored Sunday when Noosa Beach received a 95 Beyer for his track-record-tying performance in the Seattle Handicap.

Noosa Beach ran six furlongs in 1:07 to equal the standard set by Atta Boy Roy last September. But while Atta Boy Roy's effort earned a 102 Beyer, Noosa Beach's Beyer Speed Figure, computed by Andrew Beyer himself, came back about two lengths slower.

Dennis Harp normally compiles speed ratings for Emerald Downs. But when Harp, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, took ill over the weekend, Beyer stepped in to do the numbers for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, using the methodology he first wrote about in his 1975 book "Picking Winners: A Horseplayer's Guide." Beyer Speed Figures have been a staple in Daily Racing Form past performances since 1991.

Beyer and his team of employees compile figures for every horse in every race run in North America. Their figures account for the inherent speed of the racetrack on the day the race was run. And on Sunday at Emerald, the surface was off-the-charts fast. Royal Game won a $20,000 maiden claimer in 1:09.20 for six furlongs. Polo Bender captured a $5,000 claimer in 1:08.60. Barata, a 3-year-old filly making her first start, won a $7,500 maiden claimer in 1:09.80.

"Racetracks don't get much faster," Beyer said. "The variants were like minus-50 or faster, which is as souped up as a track can get. It was quite remarkable."

Much like its Seattle-area predecessor, Longacres, Emerald Downs has been recognized for supersonic race times. In 2005, Sabertooth blazed 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:13 to set a North American record. Sky Jack won the 2003 Longacres Mile in 1:33. Two horses, Willie the Cat and The Great Face, have covered 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:01.20. That, too, is a North American record.

But while the surface has been conducive to speed, it appears the horses themselves have been slowing. In Emerald's first eight seasons, from 1996-2003, a total of 21 Beyer Speed Figures of 105 or higher were assigned, topped by a 116 given to Crowning Meeting in 2000. But in the six-plus seasons since 2003, just one horse has earned a figure of 105 or higher - the 108 assigned to Sabertooth for his record-setting performance in 2005.

Beyer theorizes that a host of factors - a shrinking horse population, stagnant purses, declines in the breeding industry - may have contributed to a subtle decline in the quality, and speed, of the horses at Emerald Downs.

"The only explanation would be the horses aren't as good," he said. "Our system of numbers is such that they are comparable from year to year."

When Beyer's lieutenants compile speed ratings, they begin with a chart of par times - essentially the average time for a given class at a given distance over the past year or more. They then compare actual race times to the pars. If the actual times are faster than par, they assign a negative variant and adjust the Beyer Speed Ratings accordingly.

Beyer said there have been no major revisions to Emerald Downs par times over the years, though minor adjustments are made when warranted.

"We regularly look at how horses do when they're shipping between different tracks," he said. "If it's between Emerald Downs and California, we would look at all the evidence over a period of time to make sure, say, a 90 at Emerald equals a 90 in California. So if a track over time is getting stronger or getting weaker . . . if the horses who are running a 90 at Emerald are running an 80 in California, we might have to adjust. I don't know if that happened here, but that's the methodology."

In 2005, Emerald Downs stakes races for older males received an average Beyer Speed Figure of 95, decreasing to 94 in 2006, 93 in 2007-08, and 91 in 2009.

"In looking at older males in 2000, the average was at 98, so they have in fact been slowly trending downward over the past decade," Beyer said. "Washington isn't the only state where you're probably seeing a little decline in the quality of the horses."

Assessment needed the race

Assessment, winner of the 2009 Longacres Mile en route to horse of the meeting honors, closed willingly last Sunday to finish fifth in the Seattle Handicap, five lengths behind winner Noosa Beach. It was the 6-year-old gelding's first start since undergoing ankle surgery in September.

"In the post-parade, he was as a happy as can be," jockey Gallyn Mitchell said. "I wanted to give him a nice, clean trip. He was a little wider than I wanted, but it was no problem. When I made my move, I saw Noosa Beach take off and Assessment started to get tired. Every horse that beat him today had a race under his belt. I had a feeling he'd need a race."