03/20/2007 11:00PM

Sometimes a Beyer just doesn't figure


PHILADELPHIA - When somebody asks how a Beyer Speed Figure can be adjusted, I cite the 1989 Breeders' Cup Classic when, if the data was taken at face value, Western Playboy, after running out of the TV set in the Pennsylvania Derby, would have entered the gate with a giant edge in the figures over Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

Something was amiss. I did not know what, but something had to be wrong. There are just some things that cannot be. Western Playboy cannot be lengths faster than Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.

A computer program in vogue at the time published their numbers with Western Playboy having a huge edge. The Beyer Figure makers, with a human element as a final check, downgraded Western Playboy's number to something more in line with his lifetime form. Western Playboy ran out of the TV set again in the BC Classic - this time at the other end.

We didn't want to change Western Playboy's figure after the fact. That time, we did not have to. Some times, we do.

This is science with a splash of art. When the science does not compute, the figure makers have to resort to some art.

Take the case of Summer Doldrums. Mark Hopkins makes the Beyers in New York. When Summer Doldrums won the Feb. 10 Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct, Hopkins was faced with a dilemma.

The early part of that card seemed to make perfect sense. Then, the track appeared to slow down and then speed up again. We are most confident when a day falls perfectly into line. There are many days when that simply does not happen. This was one of those days.

Summer Doldrums had a high Beyer of 90 entering the race. He won the Whirlaway by 5 1/4 lengths and ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.23, a raw figure of 123. Once the variant for the day is computed, points are deducted or added depending on the speed of the track. This surface was fast. The question was: how fast. Hopkins concluded it was 17 points fast and deducted 17 points from the 123 to get a Beyer Figure of 106 for Summer Doldrums.

"You look at the horses and you say how can they possibly run that fast, so I knew I was in a jackpot," Hopkins said. "I had a choice of a 94, 100, or 106. In hindsight, I probably should have made it 100. I thought it was maybe 40 percent 106, 30 percent 100, 30 percent 94, knowing full well that whatever choice you make, you have a better chance of being wrong that right."

The horses in the race prior to the Whirlaway came back to run much faster. The Whirlaway horses did not.

Sometimes, 3-year-olds blow up in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby - Charismatic and War Emblem being prominent examples of horses that raised their Beyers significantly in the race prior to the Derby. Those times, we went with the data and you know how that ended. This one ended differently.

Exactly a month after the Whirlaway, Summer Doldrums was the 6-5 favorite in the Gotham. He was bet because of his big win and the big figure.

Summer Doldrums ran third. There was little confusing about the variant that day, although the slow fractions for the Gotham were bizarre. The track was 10 points fast. Race winner Cowtown Cat got a raw figure of 98 and, after the points were deducted, an actual figure of 88. Summer Doldrums got an 84, a 22-point drop from the Whirlaway.

To a figure maker, the data from Gotham Day was unambiguous. Hopkins concluded that the Whirlaway figure was wrong. It was changed to a 94.

When the data is confusing, Hopkins said, "you basically have to make your best estimate."

After more data is available, you have two choices: Be stubborn and refuse to admit you were wrong or change the number and try to do better the next time. Hopkins went for option 2. All of us would. Similar situations crop up regularly, but rarely with such a high-profile horse on the road to the Triple Crown.

Summer Doldrums's trainer Rick Violette thinks the Whirlaway Beyer is now too low and the Gotham figure should be higher. And he might be right.

"I'm not a numbers aficionado because while they're supposed to be objective, they are subjective [in certain cases]," Violette said.

The vast majority of the times, the numbers are perfectly objective. Then, there are cases, like this one and Western Playboy, where subjectivity is in order.

Violette pointed out that the very slow Gotham fractions made little sense. Hard to argue with that when you put them in the context of the day.

"The Gotham numbers are wrong," Violette suggested. "The racetrack certainly changed, whether it was the track or the wind. You can't make any sense of it otherwise."

Violette was not shocked by the result.

"Forget the numbers," he said. "He was supposed to bounce and he did. He had some crud in his lungs. I think he's sitting on a huge race coming up to the Wood."

The most recent Beyer would not suggest that, but form cycles do change. And Violette thinks Summer Doldrums is sitting on another good one. So, there you have it.