06/07/2009 11:00PM

Pattern recognition

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The non-claiming 3-year-olds perform so infrequently now that the traditional indicators of form-cycle analysis no longer apply. Recent races and workouts have been brushed aside by a post-modern interpretation of current form that remains outside the repertoire of most handicappers: figure patterns. The Beyer Speed Figures were introduced to handicappers who had never calculated a track variant in 1992, and the numbers have proved especially sensitive to pattern recognition.

As is customarily the circumstance, the telltale figure-patterns were abundantly on display throughout the undercard and culminating in the main event of the Belmont Stakes program, and handicappers should determine to come to grips with the new reality. At a minimum they should entertain a closer acquaintance with the most definitive of the figure-patterns: paired figures. The speed figures of the recent pair of performances need not be identical, but within a point or two (occasionally three) of one another, which equates roughly to a length on the Beyer scale.

Let's revisit five intriguing patterns of Belmont Saturday.

Mine That Bird

The Belmont Stakes Beyer par was 108. Below is Mine That Bird's pattern leading up to the race:

DateRaceBeyer

May 16Preakness106

May 2Kentucky Derby105

Top three prior Beyer Figures: 80-81-79

In the voluminous coverage of this rampantly improving 3-year-old in the three weeks leading to the Belmont Stakes, not a single correspondent or analyst anywhere dared to note that the gelding suddenly had paired figures at the top of his form cycle, and therefore could be expected to regress in the Belmont. Nonetheless, that is precisely what might have been expected, and at the marathon distance of the race, that is exactly what happened. And the analysts should have told us as much.

The rationale is plain but convincing. Most Thoroughbreds can deliver two, and only two, top performances, before they will regress. All but the top runners can be expected to regress after pairing speed figures at the top of their form cycles.

But with top 3-year-olds - extending to lightly raced 4-year-olds - when they pair speed figures at a new top, the best of them can be expected to deliver a forward move, even when matched against classier company. All others should be expected to disappoint.

So should Mine That Bird have been expected to move forward in the Belmont, or regress? Is the gelding a top 3-year-old, or merely a good one? As an overbet favorite in Grade 1 company at a marathon distance he has never negotiated, the practical consideration must be the gelding should regress.

Justwhistledixie

Two races earlier, Justwhistledixie was another overbet favorite, displaying a variation of the paired-figure pattern going into the Acorn that handicappers will not experience nearly as often. The Acorn's Beyer par was 98. Below is Justwhistledixie's pattern leading up to the race:

DateRaceBeyer

March 27Bonnie Miss95

March 1Davona Dale96

Jan. 4Ruthless88

Dec. 28Love Affair88

Top three prior Beyer Figures: 85-73-70

As talented youngsters will, Justwhistledixie paired figures on the cusp of her 3-year-old season and moved forward impressively, from minor ungraded stakes during Aqueduct winter to the Grade 2 level at Gulfstream Park. She then paired figures anew, and on Saturday ran with comparable company at a familiar one-turn mile, where she won at Gulfstream Park.

Justwhistledixie was bettable perhaps at 2.70-1 at Gulfstream Park on March 1, but she was not bettable at odds-on last Saturday at Belmont Park, and not because she should be expected to regress. Five for seven for a leading horseman (Kiaran McLaughlin), Justwhistledixie had every right to move forward again. Still, she did not, and her defeat qualifies as another excerpt of the cautionary tale: when all but the truly exceptional young horses pair speed figures at a new top, most of them will decline next time. The odds are always a part of the equation. At odds-on, what's the point of betting? And because Justwhistledixie did not move forward, handicappers' best estimate of her ability rests on the pair of tops she previously has reached: 95-96.

A second counterpoint in this context is germane. During the first half of the season particularly, any talented 3-year-old can move forward by leaps instead of steps. Gabby's Golden Gal, the Bob-Baffert-trained filly that drew out from Justwhistledixie in the Acorn, had never recorded a Beyer Figure higher than 86. Gabby's Golden Gal's new top she recorded in the Acorn can be accepted as genuine. But if she pairs figures next time in the second leg of the filly triple at Belmont Park, Gabby's Golden Gal should be expected to disappoint in the final leg.

Gio Ponti

Here's another interesting variation of the paired-figure pattern for Gio Ponti, the 4-year-old winner of the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap, who had made 11 previous starts. The Manhattan's Beyer par was 108. Below is Gio Ponti's pattern leading up to the race:

DateRaceBeyer

March 7Kilroe Mile104

Feb. 7Strub Stakes98

Dec. 26Sir Beaufort98

Nov. 30Hollywood Derby95

Top three prior Beyer Figures: 99-98-99

This is a new 4-year-old that paired his 3-year-old tops first attempt at 4 and immediately moved forward by three lengths while up in class; impressive. The Grade 2 Strub was limited to 4-year-olds, while the the Grade 1 Kilroe was open to 4 and up and annually attracts the leading turf milers in Southern California and often in the country. Not part of the current discussion, but compelling, Gio Ponti had finished the final quarter of the Kilroe Mile in 22.40 seconds.

Gio Ponti represented no standout in the Manhattan Handicap, but he qualified as a definite contender. When new 4-year-olds pair 3-year-old tops early in the new season, and move forward impressively, they have every right to move forward again. Gio Ponti is an authentically top horse, something neither of the 3-year-olds above have yet to demonstrate.

Fabulous Strike

Now examine a more familiar horse and more familiar variation of the paired-figure pattern for older horses that is important to digest. The True North's Beyer par was 109. Below is Fabulous Strike's pattern leading up to the race:

DateRaceBeyer

April 4Carter104

Feb. 16Genereal George104

Top three prior Beyer Figures: 109-113-114

Fabulous Strike is a 6-year-old. When older horses pair speed figures below the top of their recent form cycles, they should be expected to cycle back toward those tops. It's the opposite of the regression pattern that should be expected when all but the truly exceptional older horses pair speed figures at the top of their form cycles. At even-money, Fabulous Strike won the True North Handicap easily. No one should have been surprised.

Sette E Mezzo

Finally, examine a fascinating figure pattern for the lightly raced 4-year-old winner of the fifth on the Belmont card, a one-other-than allowance turf route for 3-year-olds and up.

The Beyer par for the allowance level was 91. Below is Sette E Mezzo's pattern leading up to the race:

DateRaceBeyer

May 14N1X86

April 3 Mdn Sp Wt86

Top three prior Beyer Figures: 80-69-79

Sette E Mezzo had paired figures two to three lengths below the Beyer par of 91 for such 1 1/16-mile turf races at Belmont Park. Not only does the paired-figure pattern suggest a forward move today, but also among the older horses (4 and up) the typical forward move will be two to three lengths, in this case matching par.

To be sure, if the paired-figure pattern for Sette E Mezzo had been 76-76 instead of 86-86, the colt should not have been expected to contend against a par of 91. Many older horses do pair figures too far below par to matter.

The point does not extend to the 3-year-olds, who can move forward dramatically at any point, a la Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby, and can be particularly dangerous following a paired-figure pattern.

Sette E Mezzo won the allowance race and paid a fair mutuel of $9.70. Perhaps more importantly on the turf, the figure patterns often will not be as decisive as the final fractions, or the ability to finish fastest from the six-furlong call to the wire. Sette E Mezzo had finished faster than 12 seconds a furlong in his first turf route at the one-other-than level. If the Bill Mott-trained colt had not demonstrated the ability to finish faster than 12 seconds a furlong at the level, the paired-figure pattern would not have overcompensated for the shortcoming. But in a positive context, the figure-pattern helps.

Pattern recognition constitutes a fundamental skill of the handicapping art, practiced in several ways by virtually all of us. At a moment when evaluating the current form of young and lightly raced horses has become a headache, learning to deal skillfully with common figure patterns should help. It's nice to know that when the large majority of horses have paired speed figures, they will likely to disappoint next time. That should always be anticipated with the overbet favorites.