05/30/2001 11:00PM

Sometimes, it's all about the track

Email

ELMONT, N.Y. - According to the Beyer Speed Figures, this is an exceptionally fast crop of 3-year-olds.

Last year at this time, the only one who had run 110 or better at a distance of one mile or over was Fusaichi Pegasus, who posted a 111 in the Wood Memorial.

When Hero's Tribute earned a 112 for winning last Saturday's Peter Pan, he became the seventh 3-year-old to reach the 110 level this season, joining Monarchos (116), Millennium Wind (114), Balto Star (112), Point Given (111), Crafty C.T. (111), and Keats (110). Close behind are Invisible Ink and Congaree, who ran 109's in the Kentucky Derby.

These guys are good. Nobody said they were consistent, though. The catch is trying to figure out when those big figures are coming. Do that, and you're king of the world.

When it comes to explaining the first two legs of the Triple Crown to non-racing acquaintances, I've started to develop bursitis from the non-stop shoulder shrugs.

"Hey Dave, what happened to Point Given in the Derby? You said he had to be one-two!"

(Shrug) They say he didn't like the track.

"What turned that horse around in the Preakness?"

(Shrug) They say he liked that track better.

"Hey, what happened to Monarchos in the Preakness?"

(Shrug) The trainer says he knew right away he didn't like the track.

"So how do you tell if a horse is going to like the track?"

(Double shrug) I don't know.

"You work for the Racing Form, right? I thought you knew about this stuff."

(Shrug)

The Beyer Figures are frequently referred to in this space, which is only natural because they have become the common currency, so to speak, when racegoers discuss horses' abilities.

But I still make my own figures for the New York circuit, for the same reason I like eating a meal at home instead of going out all the time. Good restaurants are one of life's pleasures, but it's also nice to prepare things for yourself. You can season things to your particular taste. And you know exactly what went into it.

Since a good degree of subjectivity goes into the process, no two sets of figures are exactly alike. That's all well and good because differences of opinion are the essence of the game. Even when your figures yield conclusions similar to the Beyers, just going through the process often provides valuable insights into the nature of the racetrack - which is no small thing, considering how finicky horses have become about their racetracks (or at least, that's what their connections would have us believe).

As do-it-yourself figure makers are well aware, the same track can be totally different from day to day, particularly when it takes on water.

This phenomenon occurred during the holiday weekend at Belmont. The track absorbed about three inches of rain beginning last Tuesday, and drying conditions were virtually non-existent, so that it was either sloppy or muddy for six consecutive days.

When Hero's Tribute and E Dubai slugged it out in the Peter Pan through eye-catching fractions, they were doing it on greased lightning. Two races earlier, the 4-year-old filly Dat You Miz Blue, recently tried and found wanting in a Grade 3 stakes at Aqueduct, won a six-furlong classified allowance in 1:07.92, just a tick off Artax's track record.

By my count, using Quirin-style figures where 100-100 are the pace and final-time standards for $10,000 claimers, the track was a full second fast to the pace call and four-fifths fast overall. Par for Grade 2 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles is about 110-110, and after adjusting for track speed, I gave Hero's Tribute a 112-107. Translation: They went fast early, but slowed noticeably from the three-eighths pole to the wire. A closer like Monarchos would have been set up nicely to win it, but no late runners of that caliber were in the field.

Two days later, they ran the slowest Met Mile in 54 years. The track "looked" about the same as it had the five previous days, but in the aftermath figuremakers knew that conditions on Memorial Day had been nothing like Saturday's slick, super-fast surface. In fact, the raw times from the day's three route races were seven to eight ticks slower than par, which implied that the chute must have had the consistency of quicksand. By the time the day's routers came to the quarter pole they were already running on fumes, and struggled mightily to the wire.

Indeed, the Met Mile's last half-mile unfolded as if in a dream state through an interminable 52.01 seconds. Granted, there were no bona-fide Grade 1 horses in the field (those with two Grade 1 wins), but this wasn't really the worst running since 1947. With par set at 112-112, it logged in at 113-110. A hotly contested pace (as always in the Met), that was followed by a slightly below average finish.

I guess Exciting Story, the 56-1 winner of the Met, must have liked that track, huh?