06/29/2008 11:00PM

What follows a good pair?


Only hours after Big Brown had stopped in the Belmont, the Bobby Frankel-trained Champs Elysees exited the gate at 4-5 in Hollywood Park's Grade 1, $300,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on turf, ran next to last all the way into the stretch, and never moved up even a step. Racing fans and the media scrambled - and still do - to disentangle the mystery of Big Brown's disappearance. Experienced handicappers shrugged.

Most have grown weary of ostensibly inexplicable form reversals, especially of the grossest sort. In a time when leading Thoroughbreds obviously lack endurance, race sparingly, and require longer intervals of rest between starts, the pratfalls of Big Brown and Champs Elysees on a June afternoon can be accepted as rather routine. The 3-year-old Big Brown will likely bounce back to top form next time, but no one should any longer expect Champs Elysees will win the Grade 1 Arlington Million, the Breeders' Cup Turf, or any Grade 1 grass event in between.

More on those predictions momentarily.

One of the most fascinating developments of the postmodern handicapping art has been the use of figure patterns to predict improving and declining form. While speed figures are well known to correlate positively with ability, or class, certain patterns of speed figures can serve as reliable instruments of form analysis. Perhaps the most reliable and useful of these are the paired-figure patterns. That is, a horse has delivered essentially the same performance twice in a row.

What should happen next?

The pairs of figures can be strong predictors. The patterns vary in their interpretation between older horses and 3-year-olds, but a recent race at Hollywood Park can illustrate how the paired-figure patterns can help handicappers solve perhaps the most elusive problem of form analysis, that of claiming races limited to 3-year-olds. The great majority of these horses will be cheap, slow, and most annoyingly, inconsistent, rendering traditional indices of form analysis - recent races and workouts - correspondingly unreliable.

Race 4 on June 22 was a $16,000 claiming race for 3-year-old fillies going seven furlongs. At major tracks it does not get much cheaper than this in June. In a nine-horse field, all three contenders - Sweet Roseman, Tootsnmoneybags, and Cupid's Kitty - were were exiting the same $12,500 race exactly 21 days earlier. The Beyer Speed Figure par at Hollywood Park for a $16,000 claiming race limited to 3-year-old fillies in June is roughly 68 to 73, the lower figure allowing an acceptable spread of about two lengths.

The paired-figure pattern belongs to Sweet Roseman. This filly had recorded a pair of 78s in her last two, encompassing a win for $25,000 first off the $20,000 claim by trainer Frank Monteleone, who wins at a 20 percent clip in that category. That victory was followed by a big win on a suspicious three-level class drop to $12,500.

First, handicappers must appreciate the speed figures in a paired-figure pattern need not be identical, but rather can be a length apart. A spread of 2 points on the Beyer scale satisfies the definition of the pattern. So Sweet Roseman might have recorded Beyer Figures instead of 78-76, or vice-versa, and she still would represent the pattern. I preferred Sweet Roseman in this spot because:

* She had run faster than par by two lengths and faster than her opposition by more than two lengths.

* She had improved dramatically since the claim three back by Monteleone.

* She did not need the lead and thereby would not be burned to toast by the early speed of other front-runners.

* She was rising in class by one level following a good race and big win, and at anytime of the year 3-year-old claiming horses always should be preferred on a rise in claiming price, and not so much on a drop in claiming price.

When Sweet Roseman was backed to 7-5 at the two-minute mark I switched allegiance to second choice Tootsnmoneybags because:

* She went as a 7-1 overlay off my line of 4-1.

* She was making her third start off a long layoff, the second start much improved, a traditional peaking-form pattern.

* She had run within two lengths of par and equally as fast as any of the others besides the favorite.

* She had won at seven furlongs and featured an off-pace running style that often has been favored in longer sprints on Hollywood Park's newfangled Cushion Track.

* She, too, was rising in claiming price off a good race.

When Tootsnmoneybags got up late to win and Sweet Roseman never reached contention in a dull effort, I not only cashed a $16 mutuel but also I internalized a lesson I intend to apply to 3-year-old claiming races in the future. Despite the filly's positives, even as the race was running its course I determined I understood why Sweet Roseman was doing so little.

For while it's widely understood that paired-figure patterns among the better 3-year-olds should result in a move forward, the opposite might be true of cheap 3-year-olds, i.e, the claimers, and especially the lower-level claimers. Sweet Roseman had delivered her best effort twice in a row. She's a cheap commodity.

So are all 3-year-old claiming horses in June, and certainly so the $16,000 brand. These horses can be expected to deliver two top efforts in a row. Most of them will disappoint on the third attempt, many at miserly prices, as did Sweet Roseman. It's a hardened attitude now for me, this paired-figure guideline, applicable to all claiming 3-year-olds at anytime of the season.

The best play in any 3-year-old claiming race remains an allowance dropdown who has exhibited even a trace of ability - early speed to the first call, a mid-race move, a high pace figure, an even effort that has beaten half the field, or a horse who has finished within six lengths of allowance runners - but that guideline applies best in higher-priced claiming races from January to June. Allowance dropdowns dominate the 3-year-old claiming races of winter and spring. The guideline applies later in the season as well, only less reliably, and less so as the season progresses.

In cheaper circumstances, such as the $16,000 claiming race under review, the allowance dropdowns will only occasionally appear. None had bothered to enter the Sweet Roseman sprint. Thus the paired-figure elimination can carry the cause in the search for false favorites and attractive overlays. Twice in a row, okay, but three in a row, no.

Which completes the circle back to the better 3-year-olds and even division leaders like Big Brown. No matter how fast they have run, when non-claiming 3-year-olds pair figures at the top of their form cycles, they should be expected to move forward. The best of them will. If they fail to move forward, the conclusion must be the 3-year-olds already have shown handicappers the best they can do, until perhaps late in the year or their 4-year-old season.

Big Brown recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 104-106 in a Gulfstream Park allowance comeback and the Florida Derby, a paired-figure pattern, before moving forward to a 109 Beyer in the Kentucky Derby, the year's toughest test, and an impressive pattern. Because the colt romped home alone and was geared down in the Preakness, the 100 Beyer proved hard to evaluate, although no handicapper can easily reconcile the figure with a claim to high class. Another forward move in the Belmont Stakes was entirely feasible, but as we all know, Big Brown came up empty. As dismissive as it sounds, it happens.

Whether relying upon traditional indicators or figure patterns, Big Brown's form reversal that hot day was not predictable. It's true too that leading 3-year-olds must be granted a moment in time to disappoint, as most of them will, and Big Brown selected the worst possible moment to disappoint.

What figure analysts know is this. When Big Brown returns in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in early August, he should rebound to top form. That means Big Brown should record a Beyer Speed Figure of 109-110, or maybe 108-107, a variation of the paired-figure pattern.

And if Big Brown will be the authentically high class colt his trainer and numerous handicappers have imagined, the race following the Haskell, perhaps the Breeders' Cup Classic, will exhibit still another move forward. Form analysis as a function of figure patterns demands it. So will the 4-and-up horses in the BC Classic gate.

If Big Brown disappoints again on that final date, alas, he will go down in the books as a very good colt, to be sure, but nothing special.