02/26/2007 12:00AM

Pursuant to pace

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The opening act of DRF's Horseplayers Expo 2007 March 2 at Wynn Las Vegas is star studded, and may prove the best of show. Tom Brohamer, Steven Crist (the moderator), and Randy Moss will be exclaiming on the provocative (and complicated) subject of "Handicapping with Pace Figures." Brohamer wrote the book and is as good as it gets with pace figures, and Crist has been relying on pace figures of his own making for many years, but Moss will be the focus of interest.

The outstanding ESPN analyst and figure maker of decades will introduce to a vast audience a new brand of pace figures. They have been christened in the name of the inventor as the Moss Pace Figures, and the heightened expectation is that they can be used effectively in combination with the Beyer Speed Figures. Andy Beyer himself had been experimenting for upwards of a decade with pace figures that might be used in combination with his speed figures.

Alas, never satisfied with the arithmetic and mechanics of the methods, Beyer surrendered to the hot pursuit. Since he became publisher of Daily Racing Form in 1998, Crist has acknowledged that the most frequently submitted requests of his passionate customers have been for the inclusion of pace figures in the past performances. If the Moss Pace Figures represent a breakthrough, it will be a fundamental assist to handicappers everywhere, as well as the beginning of the end of a cutting edge for those of us who have bothered to keep personal pace figures all along.

Their introduction could not be more precisely timed, either, because the essential analysis as to which of the leading 3-year-olds should be accepted as authentic Derby candidates depends primarily upon the pace figures they can post in combination with their typically impressive speed figures. Notwithstanding the assortment of 3-year-olds annually presented as Derby prospects, only a few of them can run fast early and fast late.

A telltale illustration is the case of Ravel, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt who was anointed the ranking West Coast Derby contender by public acclaim within minutes of his winning the minor Sham Stakes (Grade 3) at Santa Anita on Feb. 3 in visually impressive style over favored Liquidity. The Beyer Speed Figure emerged at 102, a solid number in February and the third highest route figure yet accorded any colt of 2007.

As a stubborn pace analyst might insist, the coronation of Ravel has been premature, a circumstance that repeats itself on both coasts year after year.

The six-furlong pace call of the nine-furlong Sham Stakes was exceptionally slow. The raw fractions were 48.08 and 1:12.41, to a final time of 1:48.91, and no one can confuse these with Derby fractions. Ravel was beaten two lengths at the pace call on a stalking trip. In the excited hype following Ravel's impressive finish, no one bothered to observe that no colt should be expected to win the Kentucky Derby with a pace figure below par by seven to eight lengths in a graded prep.

To pursue the matter, Ravel had broken the maiden ranks in his second attempt, and with a combination of speed and pace eerily similar to his Sham triumph.

In both of Ravel's victories, the race was slow (S) early, very slow, and average (A) late. No colt can be expected to win the most treacherous race on the American calendar by running slow early and average late.

A crucial distinction of his maiden win is that on that day Ravel lagged behind the early pace for four furlongs of his initial route, but after six furlongs he had settled behind the pacesetters by a length. His final fractions have been impressively fast, all right, 36.20 for three furlongs in the 1 1/8-mile Sham following a 30.20 for five-sixteenths in his 1 1/16-mile maiden win as a juvenile. By any standard of early-pace analysis, nonetheless, Ravel must show us he can run faster early, and finish just as fast. Only then will handicappers know Ravel can win the Kentucky Derby.

Handicappers in thrall to the ravages of early pace among the young colts as they rise in class should be prepared to wager against the heavily touted Ravel in his next start. They can defend the opposition with reference to Ravel's combination of Quirin-scale speed and pace in the Sham (par is 108):

ParPaceSpeedShapeBeyer

* Sham10893108SA102

* Maiden10294102SA88

By the same analysis, as even handicappers without pace figures might appreciate, the Sham favorite Liquidity can be dismissed. Accorded a truly tardy pace, Liquidity could not prevail in ordinary time. For handicappers like me, who view the Derby prelims as largely a process of elimination, Liquidity and his kind almost certainly will be unable to survive a fast pace.

An hour following the Sham Stakes came Santa Anita's important Grade 2 Strub Stakes, a $300,000 event for 4-year-olds at the same nine furlongs. Now the fractions were a healthier 47.07 and 1:10.67, to a slightly faster final time of 1:48.65. The Strub par on the Quirin scale is 112, and the race's speed and pace figures were 112-110, a race shape characterized as average early and average late. The Strub belonged to Arson Squad, who rallied late from last to first.

Pace analysis indicates that none of the front-runners and presser-stalkers of the Strub can proceed to the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and shine. It suggests, too, that Arson Squad should not prevail in the Santa Anita Handicap unless the early pace is faster than par by a couple of lengths at the least and weakens to a below-par final time late. That's how unexceptional latecomers manage to prevail in the graded features. Like Arson Squad, they finish fast enough against a pace that has been fast to honest early, but average to slow late.

A similar prescription might prove the saving grace for Ravel, after all. It depends. In his next race, announced tentatively last week as the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 7, presumably the early pace will be seriously faster than it was in the Sham. If so, and Ravel stays within a couple of lengths early before moving at the leaders approaching the six-furlong call, the presumption holds the swifter early pace should bother him. That's because for the vast majority of young and lightly raced horses, all but the cream, when the early pace quickens, the final time declines, and vice-versa. Regardless, that's the analysis leading to the betting windows, as Ravel will be a gaping underlay.

But if Ravel lags lengths behind a faster early pace and rallies following six furlongs under the amazingly patient and furious finisher Garrett Gomez, his rider so far, the colt might triumph against a tiring group in the Santa Anita Derby. The pace figures of late runners necessarily are significantly less important. Soft pace figures, such as Ravel's to date, are a reflection of running style, not of ability.

If, however, Ravel moves into hot fractions at the pace call in a fast-moving Santa Anita Derby, he will have a marvelous chance to lose. Not long ago, exactly that happened to the best colt Bob Baffert ever has brought to Louisville. Point Given moved into an extremely fast early pace at the mile call in the 2002 Derby, and flattened out immediately, although to be fair, that was an especially vicious Derby pace, probably the fastest in memory.

Regardless, a late-running Ravel would be unlikely to duplicate a Santa Anita Derby rally to win in Louisville, unless the Derby pace collapses, which should never be the expectation. It does happen, of course, as illustrated twice in recent seasons by the upsets of Giacomo and Monarchos. In the Derby, the fast early, slow late race shape will be the unfortunate exception instead of the rule. Authentic Derby colts run fast early and fast late. This Ravel has not yet done.

This and more handicappers can anticipate fairly well with a handy file of pace figures. Indeed, the Ravel figures stand in contrast to the typical race shape among aspiring Derby candidates, amply illustrated by last year's leading West Coast colt, Brother Derek. In most preps, the typical Derby prospect likely will run fast early, average to slow late. As early as Jan. 14 of 2006, Brother Derek beat juvenile champion Stevie Wonderboy wire to wire in a Grade 3 mile with a speed and pace combination (par 108) of 114-110 (Beyer 103), a fast-average shape.

Brother Derek was a legitimate Derby candidate in January, but the speed figure had to be improved. The colt had ample time.

By the Santa Anita Derby of early April, however, Brother Derek, the race's winner, instead had regressed. His combination of speed and pace on that day (par 110) was 106-112. As the pace figure went down, the speed figure went up, the customary pattern, but the combination was too weak to threaten top Derby colts. Brother Derek, who is injured and out of the Santa Anita Handicap, is winless since the Santa Anita Derby. He went favored in the Strub earlier this year and finished a non-threatening third. His speed and pace figures (par 112) were 111-109, pace up, speed down, and a combination incapable of defeating a top handicap horse.

In the 1993 book "Beyer On Speed," his final treatment of speed handicapping, Andrew Beyer admonished handicappers not to rely reflexively on the high-figure horses, but urged them instead to come to grips with the critical issue; that is, how were the figures earned? The lion's share of the explanation was attributed to trips, but the far more salient and frequent explanation is pace. If the Moss Pace Figures can clarify how the majority of Beyer Speed Figures, high and low, have been earned, notably among the popular 3-year-olds, a circle of speed will have been completed at last.