01/07/2002 12:00AM

Sometimes the number doesn't tell all

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COLUMBIA, Md. - Relating trip notes to speed figures is a constant creative challenge. Integrating these two disparate approaches requires sensible judgment, careful race-watching, and methodical recording of track biases. Even then, judgments can be difficult. What do you do, for example, when the figures point in one direction and the trips point in the opposite direction?

Here are some recent cases:

True Sensation

This 2-year-old filly had improved her Beyer Figures from 34 to 54 to 75 in her three lifetime starts. Then she finally won her maiden on Dec. 6 in eye-catching fashion: On a track generally favoring inside speed, she sat four wide around both turns at Laurel Park, rolled impressively past her opposition on the far turn, and won with a lot left in the tank. I immediately put her on my list of trip horses to watch.

There was just one problem. Her Beyer Figure came back a lowly 60. And so when she was next entered in the Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship on Dec. 29, you had to ask yourself, was her previous race just a bullying of inferior opposition in slow time, or was it an outstanding effort with a tough against-the-bias trip? I decided that her maiden win could best be seen less as a race and more as a public workout - so the 60 Beyer didn't bother me too much. This slant on the problem proved justified when True Sensation ran a Beyer of 83 and won the Juvenile Filly Championship by 2 1/2 lengths. She paid $15.20.

Test Pilot

Laurel is perhaps the best-maintained track surface in America. You can usually rely on it being fair and even and bias-free. But recently there has been an outbreak of speed-rail biases, particularly on Dec. 21 and 22. The 6-year-old horse Test Pilot ran into that bias on the 21st, and was hung out wide on both turns while closing strongly to be third in a $6,000 claiming race. When he returned on Jan. 1 he jumped off the page - at least in terms of trips.

But there were problems. First, the Beyer of 67 that he earned on the 21st was his best figure in some time. While Test Pilot used to be a classy horse in his younger days, I wondered whether a relatively strong Beyer earned under tough circumstances might not have taken something out of him.

Second, he was claimed on Dec. 21 by a trainer who had not won a race in 2001, and he had taken him from the very hot Michael Gill barn. And third, the field on Jan. 1 looked very competitive at the higher $8,000 level.

I decided to scale back my play. Too bad. Test Pilot annihilated his opposition at 5-1. His figure improved only to 71, so perhaps his impressive win owed more to the failure of the rest of the field. Still, Test Pilot proved out the value of the Laurel biases.

Star Slugger

This young colt had taken advantage of the speed bias on Dec. 22 and crushed a $12,500 maiden claiming field by 11 1/2 lengths - in hand every step of the way. Now, in the second race on Jan. 3, he was returning as the favorite in a $25,000 claimer around two turns. His Beyers had recently improved from 25 to 28 to 35 to 65. Because he was coming off a bias-aided win, moving way up in class, and looking like a strong candidate for a bounce, I wanted no part of him. He was a must-bet-against.

Star Slugger went to the lead again on Jan. 3, was never really threatened, and ran up the score - winning by four lengths and earning a flashy 81 Beyer. As it turned out, Jan. 3 was another big rail-speed day.

So I'm sure I'll be looking to bet against Star Slugger again real soon. I just hope the outcome is a bit less disastrous.

T P Louie

On Jan. 2, after settling down at my carrel in the Laurel simulcasting room, a friend told me that there had been a big speed bias at Philadelphia Park on Jan. 1. So I kept an eye on Philly throughout the day and, just as my friend had said, the front-runners were overwhelming. By the time the eighth race came around, we all knew: you either bet the speed or you didn't bet at all. And there was no doubt who was the inside speed in the eighth. It was T P Louie.

In a race where most of his six opponents sported speed figures in the 70's and 80's and even low 90's, poor Louie looked hopelessly out-Beyered.

His last three figures were all in the 50's. In addition, he had huge gaps in his form, and he had lost his last three races by 15 3/4, 16 1/2, and 15 3/4 lengths. For all these reasons he was a perfectly understandable 16-1.

But there were some positives.

T P Louie had tired only after a blazing pace in his last race, and was turning back from seven furlongs to 6 1/2 furlongs. He had run against tough competition, often in stakes races. He was capable, on his best Beyer, of matching most of his opponents' better recent Beyers.

In the end, of course, there was only one positive combination that really counted: he had the rail, and he had the speed.

T P Louie exploded out of the gate onto an unchallenged lead, galloped along easily in front of his struggling competition, and never tired. He won by 5 1/4 lengths, paying $31.80. His Beyer of 93 was far and away a new lifetime best. Clearly, a powerful bias cured all of Louie's ills and blew up his Beyer Figure to a mind-boggling new level.

A lesson for us all: Speed figures always have to be evaluated in context, especially when that context involves dramatic circumstances like big trips and big biases.