05/23/2012 4:53PM

Jerardi: The science behind Beyer Figures

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Barbara D. Livingston
I'll Have Another's 101 Beyer for winning the Kentucky Derby was five points better than his career best at the time.

This is Beyer Speed Figures 101, the remedial course. After I wrote a column two weeks ago entitled “Kentucky Derby Beyers are on the wane,” I noticed some of the comments. As I kept reading, one thing became very apparent: We here at Beyer Central needed to spend some time explaining the fundamentals of making figures because there were many misconceptions.

The figures are not, as was suggested by some of the comments, subjective. This is science not art. It is based on mathematics. A figure is not a performance rating; it is a speed figure. It is not an opinion. There is no bias. The numbers are the numbers.

Essentially, figure makers want to know how fast a horse ran in relation to the speed of the track he ran on. Surface speeds change day to day, depending on weather, maintenance, and many other factors.

[MORE: Andrew Beyer on changing the figure for the Derby Trial]

Think of it this way. You have two human runners of equal ability in a race. They run side by side, one on sand, the other on concrete. Obviously, the runner on concrete is going to win every time.

If all track surfaces were uniform, final times would be sufficient to tell us with horse is faster. But they are not.

Andrew Beyer’s classic mid-1970s book “Picking Winners” explained the methodology behind the figures and explained the unexplainable to many players, including me. The raw times of races were converted to numbers to make the calculations less cumbersome.

The “eureka!’’ moment for Beyer was when Harvard classmate Sheldon Kovitz explained what now seems obvious – a fraction of a second is more significant in a shorter race than a longer race. That led to the creation of accurate parallel time charts that are able to relate times at different distances.

A runner, who finishes a second slower than the 100-meter record, is pretty good. A runner, who is a second slower than the 1,500-meter record, is a superstar.

If you want to learn more about parallel time charts, read “Picking Winners’’ or “Beyer on Speed.” The charts are the underpinnings for accurate speed figures.

We take all the times on a specific race card and go through them race by race. Back in the day, it was all done on paper. Now, we have a chart-like computerized printout that shows the last five Beyers for each horse in a race, in addition to that race’s par time, what that class of horses has traditionally done over a period of time.

Then, we note the difference between what was expected (par times, recent Beyers) and the reality. For each race, we assign a difference. Then, we average those differences over an entire card and assign a variant. We take the variant and either add (if the times were slower than expected) or subtract (if the times were faster than expected) from the raw times for each race. Then, we have a Beyer figure for each race on every card in America.

Seems there were a lot of questions about the Beyer assigned to I’ll Have Another in the Derby. Let’s go over the card.

The times were very fast all day. The second race was for maiden special weights going 6 furlongs. The time was 1:10.06 which equates to a raw figure of 106. The par time for that group of horses at Churchill Downs is 83. Combine that with what this lightly raced group had done in the past and you might expect them to run about an 80. So let’s call it a difference of 25 points or 2.3 seconds at 6 furlongs.

Shackleford won the seventh race, going 7 furlongs in 1:21.06, a raw figure of 131. He had gotten a 106 in his previous start, again a difference of 25 points.

Groupie Doll set a 7-furlong track record in the ninth race, getting the distance in 1:20.44, a raw figure of 140. She won by 7 1/4 lengths. Combine the margin with the time and it was pretty clear her race was exceptional.

The time for the Derby was 2:01.83, a raw figure of 129. It was obvious Bodemeister was slowing down in that final quarter so you could not evaluate the final time off his 108 in the Arkansas Derby, 220 yards shorter than the Derby. So Beyer, who does the Churchill figs himself, looked at what the other four horses in the top five had done in recent races and looked at the Derby through that lens.

When he took all the dirt times and their differences through the entire day, he determined the variant was -28. Which gave Groupie Doll a 112 and I’ll Have Another a 101, five points better than his previous Best Beyer.

One commenter wondered how I’ll Have Another, who ran the mile and a quarter in 2:01.83, could get a 101 while Smarty Jones (2004) ran the distance in 2:04.06 and got a 107. Now, you should know, but just so it is clear, the times on that sloppy track in 2004 were much slower than 2012. The track variant was a -4. Smarty’s time equated to a raw figure of 111. Thus, he got a 107.

The Pimlico surface last Saturday was much slower than the surface at Churchill. So even though I’ll Have Another’s actual time (1:55.94 for a mile and three-sixteenths) equaled a raw figure of just 110, he got a 109 Beyer because the variant was a -1.

Here is another way to look at I’ll Have Another. He beat Creative Cause by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby and got a 96. He beat Creative Cause by 3 lengths in the Derby and got a 101. He beat Creative Cause by 9 lengths in the Preakness and got a 109.

Creative Cause is running the same race. His last three Beyers are 95, 97 and 96. I’ll Have Another is just getting faster.

The tipoff on the big Preakness Beyer was the margin from second to third. Bodemeister ran back to his Arkansas Derby and I’ll Have Another ran him down anyway.

Some comments suggested the figmakers make decisions based on personal preference. Hopefully, this lesson clears that up as well.

There was much consternation over the great Zenyatta’s figures. Hers were calculated in the same manner. She was the proverbial horse who ran just fast enough to win. She got a 95 when she beat Rinterval by a neck in the 2010 Clement Hirsch. Does anybody think Rinterval was suddenly going to get a 110 just because she was running against Zenyatta? The data said 95 so it was a 95.

When Zenyatta had to run really fast to win the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, she ran really fast, getting a 112. When she almost caught Blame in 2010, she got a 111.

Again, the Beyers are an objective measurement of a horse’s speed in relation to the speed of the surface. They are a way to evaluate what horses have done in the past and decide how that relates to what they might do in the future. We constantly update our data base, accounting for changes in surfaces, sometimes changing the parallel time charts and par times, occasionally going back over particularly difficult days and races when more data is available. The fundamentals, however, never change.

Video: Crist & Watchmaker on Speed Figures