09/17/2003 12:00AM

Judging figures an ongoing process

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I knew her 106 Beyer Speed Figure was going to be a problem. I didn't think the figure was wrong, necessarily. It wasn't outrageously out of line. But, it did look a bit too high so I started to monitor it very closely.

The race in question was the $75,000 Legal Light at six furlongs for 3-year-old fillies, on April 26 at Delaware Park. House Party won easily, by more than eight lengths on a sloppy track. This young filly sprinter, trained by Allen Jerkens, had shown great promise as a juvenile, running a 90 Beyer when second in the Valley Stream at Aqueduct last Nov. 24. But, over the winter at Gulfstream she had been mediocre at best. Her Beyers of 82, 85, and 82 were unimpressive. Then, just six weeks later, she turned in that 106 blockbuster.

House Party's Delaware win was not a complete shock. She had shown serious talent at 2, she was running in the slop, which might have appealed to her, and she had galloped off to a decisive victory, which often indicates the possibility of a large Beyer. In addition, Jerkens has often run horses in Florida without pressing them too hard - then brought them back north with much more serious intent. Still, 106 was a huge number for an unheralded young filly so early in the year.

When the horses started running back from the Legal Light, the evidence was very much mixed. Some from the race ran worse Beyers in their next start, but a few actually improved. Two out of the six fillies won their next start, including House Party herself in the Nassau County Breeders' Cup at Belmont on May 10. But her winning figure was only a 93 - a far cry from her Delaware number. So, I continued to worry about the accuracy of the 106.

House Party's next race was in the Acorn at one mile. She ran poorly, her Beyer dropping to an 88. But, in the Prioress she rebounded to win as the 2-1 favorite and earned a 99. Her Beyer Figures were following a classic pattern: After a top performance of 106, she had declined to 93, and then further down to 88. She recovered to a 99, and seemed poised to run another big number when she was entered next in the Grade 1 Test at Saratoga. Could House Party run a 106 against the likes of Lady Tak and Bird Town? That figure might not even be good enough to win, but it could certainly put her in the exacta picture.

Figure patterns are very useful tools, but, just as with all other handicapping approaches, they can't just be used automatically - without analyzing the other factors involved. And, in House Party's case there was a lot to think about. She had earned her 106 Beyer at Delaware Park, on a sloppy track, at six furlongs, and against limited competition. The Test would be run at Saratoga, on a dry track, at seven furlongs, and against two of the top fillies in the country. Still, you have to believe in your figures, so I ended up using her in bets with the two favorites.

House Party struggled to finish a distant third in the Test, six lengths behind the wire-to-wire winner, Lady Tak (110 Beyer). But, her race was a bit better than it looked. The track was somewhat speed-favoring that day, and House Party had to close on the outside. Her figure, however, did trouble me - only a 97. She ran nowhere near her earlier peak, and her seemingly ordinary performance since rekindled all my anxieties about the accuracy of that number.

Fortunately, relief was at hand. On Sept. 6, House Party ran in the $200,000 Endine Handicap, back at Delaware Park, and back at six furlongs. She closed well in the middle of the track to win by a length, drawing off strongly and appearing to have something left in the tank. Her final time of 1:08.35 tied a 20-year-old track record for six furlongs. Although the surface was extremely fast that day - and dry, unlike her race back in April - House Party actually surpassed her earlier lifetime best. She earned a 108 in the Endine.

So, if it wasn't the sloppy track in late April that explained House Party's 106, what did? Could it be her affinity for Delaware Park? Although I don't usually subscribe to any "horse for course" theory, it was certainly a possibility here. But, I think the most convincing key to her past performances lies in the interplay between the cycling pattern in her Beyer Speed Figures and her apparent distance limitations. Clearly, that earlier 106 was an accurate indication of just how fast House Party was capable of running. But, her less-than-ideal trip in the Test coupled with the seven-furlong distance kept her from moving up again to her full potential. With a better trip, and at the more manageable six furlongs, she exploded to a new lifetime best.

It now seems clear that she is a much better filly at six furlongs, with 4 wins, 2 seconds, and 1 third in 7 tries at the shorter distance. And her Beyer figures are consistently higher at six furlongs, and generally lower at seven furlongs and one mile - at least at this stage in her career. With this insight, House Party's 97 figure in the Test doesn't look nearly as disappointing. While running against the grain of the track that day, and stretching out to a less-than-favorable distance, she still managed to run a solid Beyer.

After more than four months of worrying, that late-April figure of 106 was finally fully confirmed.