09/30/2003 11:00PM

Making Beyer Speed Figs is tricky business


BOSTON - Universal application, across the board, at every race track in North America. That's one of the most valuable features of any set of speed figures. It means that a Beyer Speed Figure of 82 at Belmont Park, for example, reflects the same level of speed and ability as an 82 at Calder Race Course in Florida or Beulah Park in Ohio, or Grant's Pass in Oregon.

But getting dozens of different race tracks into accurate alignment does not happen magically or automatically. It takes regular, careful monitoring. The relationships between speed figures at different tracks can change over time - and these changes can sometimes be significant. The reasons are many:

PURSE STRUCTURE: If the purses increase at any particular track, the quality of racing usually follows along quickly. The average times for different classes (par times) will go up by a point or two or even more. So you can't simply rely on old par times alone to maintain the accuracy of any race track's speed figures. The introduction of slot machines - and the resultant raised purses - is, of course, the major influence here. And in the last few years we've seen how dramatic an impact slots money can have on the quality of racing at such tracks as Charles Town, Delaware, Mountaineer, and Prairie Meadows, among others.

THE RIPPLE EFFECT: Purse increases can have a ripple effect on nearby race tracks. For example, the close proximity of the rising purses at Prairie Meadows could lure better-quality runners away from such places as Columbus, Fonner Park, and Lincoln. Along with the demise of Ak-sar-ben (formerly the anchor of that minor Midwestern circuit), this has all had a measurable negative impact on the quality of racing at those smaller venues. So, while the actual purses might not decline at some tracks, the relative purse structure could suffer under the impact of nearby slots. And where there is an actual reduction in purse structure, the racing could begin to deteriorate as owners and trainers seek more profitable pastures for their runners. Such a downward trend could quickly snowball into a severe deterioration in the quality of racing.

CHANGING CLASS STRUCTURE: Some race tracks change their class offerings, abolishing some levels of racing and adding others. For example, at Stampede Park in Calgary the bottom-level claimers used to run for $4,000. Then they increased it to $5,000. And this year it's up to $7,500. This has an effect on many of the par times for that track. But trying to get a precise fix on these changes and accurately readjusting the pars can be a major brain-teaser.

THE HUMAN ELEMENT: Speed figures are calculated by human beings, and the process is at least as much art as science. We're all fallible, and even the most talented and conscientious of figure-makers will sometimes find his numbers for a particular track drifting too high or too low. Computers are not the answer, because horse racing is much too complicated, and subject to too many variables, to let machines mindlessly produce speed figures. The human element (computer-aided, of course) cannot be avoided - and so human error can always crop up.

With so much of racing in such a state of flux, how can we get a precise fix on the relationship between speed figures at different tracks? How can we make sure that we are getting all our racetracks into line? The key lies in shippers' reports. These provide an extensive, detailed analysis of what happens to the speed figures of horses that ship from one race track to another. This evidence is invaluable. Without it, there would be no truly reliable way to adjust the figures of one track to keep them in line with all other tracks. And the recent re-engineering of Daily Racing Form's database has created the most sophisticated program yet for measuring the performance of shippers.

Using this vital new tool, we have just concluded the most extensive, in-depth re-examination of the relationships among Beyer Speed Figures at every racetrack in North America. And the results are interesting:

For nearly all the major circuits, little or no change was needed. The relationships remained stable, with only minor adjustments in isolated cases. This kind of minimal tweaking should have little effect on anyone's handicapping, since differences of one or two points are of little practical use in analyzing the relative merits of Thoroughbred racehorses.

But at a few mid-level and low-level racetracks, some more substantial adjustments were necessary. These changes resulted from a variety of factors: relatively rapid deterioration of the racing at a particular track or circuit, human error resulting in a drift (either higher or lower) of the local Beyers, and/or the operation of Daily Racing Form's upgraded shippers' analysis - which revealed necessary adjustments previously underestimated by earlier, less sophisticated programs. Improvements at some tracks were also a factor. For example, at Tampa Bay we had to add two points to the figures earned by last winter's runners. The impact of larger and more competitive fields, along with an increase in the number of shippers from Gulfstream and larger stables from Delaware, clearly resulted in a higher level of racing at Tampa Bay Downs.

Most figures, especially at major race tracks, never need to be adjusted. But no speed figure is etched in stone. And when they do require tweaking, only marginal changes are usually required. But whether minimal or otherwise, when the evidence proves that an adjustment is necessary, that adjustment has to be made. From Beulah to Belmont, and Yavapai to Yellowstone, that's the only way we can guarantee the continuing accuracy and reliability of the Beyer Speed Figures.

Joe Cardello is a member of Beyer and Associates.