04/15/2004 12:00AM

Pico Central was easy; making figs is not


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - One of my New Year's resolutions for 2004 was to faithfully clip out the "stakes review" pages of DRF Simulcast Weekly, and to calculate Quirin-style pace and speed figures for all the stakes races run on dirt this year.

This occasionally pays dividends, as in last week's Carter Handicap. Pico Central was coming off a front-running upset in the San Carlos Handicap, in which I assigned him 114-115. In the Carter, Pico Central set a blistering pace and turned back a stretch bid from odds-on Strong Hope, whose 4-year-old debut in a Gulfstream allowance was rated 106-116.

Both colts earned comparably fast Beyer Speed Figures - Pico Central's San Carlos a Beyer of 113 and Strong Hope's allowance a 114. The key difference was their pace figures. Pico Central had fought his way through a 21.80-second quarter under hard pressure and edged clear in a Grade 2 stakes while Strong Hope had been unchallenged on an easy lead in an allowance tune-up.

If only things were this clear all the time! The Carter happened to be a race in which my final-time figures were pretty much in line with the Beyers, but this is not always the case. Indeed, a few months of trying to make figures at out-of-town tracks gives you a new appreciation of how much work goes into the making of the Beyers because there are obstacles standing in the way of accuracy at every turn. Consider these inscrutable figure-making situations from a random handful of recent 3-year-old stakes:

Louisiana Derby: Tough to get a handle on how routes were playing on the March 7 card at Fair Grounds because the only other two-turn dirt race was a $20,000 claimer at one mile, and it was run hours earlier.

Florida Derby: Some trainers questioned whether the Gulfstream track had been adequately watered, and they probably had a valid point. Check out the replay. The Florida Derby field appears to be running on a surface the color and consistency of a dry, sandy beach. The Skip Away Handicap was run over the same track an hour or so later, but the surface looks noticeably darker, and horses' hooves produced noticeably less kicked-back dirt.

Lane's End: A heavy rain was approaching, so the track at Turfway was sealed shortly before the post parade. The result was a "fast" track that bore no resemblance to two preceding routes on the program. The day's later routes were run in a sea of slop.

Gotham: A stiff wind blew into Aqueduct off Jamaica Bay, resulting in wind-aided early splits of 21.88 and 43.67 seconds, and a laborious 27.50-second last quarter-mile against the wind.

Wood Memorial: Time was when the racing office would do figure-makers a favor and card another race at the exact distance of the feature, which at least gave figure-makers something to go by. The best example that comes to mind was the 12-furlong starter handicap for older males, which for years was a fixture on Belmont Stakes Day - a race at the same distance as the Belmont Stakes.

In trying to get a line on this year's Wood, however, the only other two-turn race on the card at Aqueduct was the opener, which was run at the obscure distance of 1 5/16 miles.

When was the last time you saw a race at 1 5/16 miles? I'm guessing never because that is a no-man's land between normal routes and marathons.

The point is that even though Beyer Speed Figures are printed in bold-face type, they are not rocket science. They are just as much an art as a science, and that is true for anyone's attempt at producing numerical expressions of Thoroughbred performances.

Bed o' Roses field not as good as it looks

The same goes for non-numerical aspects of handicapping information. It is advisable to dig beneath the surface to find an added dimension whenever possible.

A timely example is Saturday's renewal of the Bed o' Roses Handicap at Aqueduct. It is absolutely accurate to say that the field of seven fillies and mares includes three Grade 1 winners as well as a $1 million earner, and that certainly makes it sound like a stellar group, doesn't it?

But look a little closer and you see that Buy the Sport, Nonsuch Bay, and Passing Shot are each one-time Grade 1 winners - a key distinction these days - and that each won an exceptionally low rated Grade 1 race.

Buy the Sport was 48-1 when she caught stretch-out sprinter Lady Tak in the final yards of the Gazelle last Sept. 6, and she needed all of the last three furlong's 38.88 seconds to do it. She earned a Beyer of 95 and was beaten a combined 20 lengths in two subsequent starts.

Nonsuch Bay won what was hardly the mother of all Mother Gooses, taking the 2002 running of that race against three rivals - Chamrousse, Seba, and Dust Me Off - with a 92 Beyer.

Passing Shot, meanwhile, nosed Wild Spirit in last summer's Personal Ensign and also earned a Beyer of 92. She has averaged a figure of 78 in four starts since then.

Finally, the $1 million earner is Smok'n Frolic, a hard-knocking mare who finished second in this race last year. She has banked $511,400 in the first two runnings of the Sunshine Millions Distaff, races restricted to Florida- and California-breds.