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Juice or No-Juice

During last weekend's Sunshine Millions Dash at Gulfstream Park, the middling gelding, This Ones for Phil, busted out a figure of 117 in his first start for oft-maligned trainer, Rick Dutrow. This has caused some speculation from the peanut gallery as to the reason behind Phil's sudden turn around, particularly from Andrew Beyer at the Washington Post/Daily Racing Form.

Looking at This Ones for Phil's past performance line, his race at Gulfstream does seem completely out of line from his career results, which until last weekend was highlighted with a 81 BSF in a six length Maiden $40,000 win at Calder in July of 2008.

Now, I can never be confused as a Rick Dutrow fan, but is this race indicative of shenanigans on Dutrow's part or could it possibly indicate a flaw in the figure itself? Beyer and Crist routinely tell the public that speed figures are part science and art, subject to judgments by the figure makers themselves.

While Rick Dutrow does seem to do quite well with horses that he is starting for the first time (30+%), which seems more logical: that Dutrow got this gelding, drugged him up only to watch him pop a 117 figure, OR the 117 BSF is a sign that the numbers are off for that race day? And remember, Phil isn't the only horse that received a huge fig in this race - both the place (You Luckie Mann) and show (Kelly Leak) horses would have received large figures. [No word on whether the Show horse was chanting "Let them play! Let them play!" as he crossed the finish line.]

The true test will be Phil's next start: if we see him resort to an 80ish BSF, I think we can cast serious doubt as to the fig assigned in this race. If he pops another 100+ then perhaps Dutrow really has done something (not necessarily "illegal") to turn this horse around.

If any trainer other than Dutrow...(okay, any other trainer that hasn't had any drug history)...had been the trainer of this horse it probably wouldn't have made much of a splash. Horses sometimes, not often but sometimes, run races that are completely different than their past character and then return to their regular form. I pulled out some PDF past performances that I had on my hard drive at random and found several horses that improved their figs by 20+ from one race to the next.

Some horses throw out very consistent speed figures, others tend to jump all over the place. And while there are definitely issues with drugs and doping that occur in the sport, every big fig jump shouldn't automatically lead to the conclusion that the horse is chemically enhanced. It's similar to many of the things happening in baseball. Many people shout "steroids" as soon as any player has a season where his home run totals greatly surpass anything that has occurred previously in his career. But if we were to take a look at the entire history of baseball we would see that the sport is littered with players who were average most of their career but were able to put up huge numbers in a single, isolated season.

If a player today were to put up the home runs total below, the cry of "steroids" would be all over the place:

Season 1: 14
Season 2: 28
Season 3: 16
Season 4: 39
Season 5: 61
Season 6: 33
Season 7: 23
Season 8: 26
Season 9: 13
Season 10: 9
Season 11: 5

The above player never really did anything of substance home run wise during his entire career, except for Seasons 4-5-6, when he broke out for 133 HRs in three years, including a monster 61 in Season 5. This player, of course, is Roger Maris, and had he put up those numbers from 1999 to 2009, the suspicion of performance enhancing drugs would, I belive, be quite prevelant. Just as it was for the player that put up these totals:

Season 1: 1
Season 2: 4
Season 3: 3
Season 4: 2
Season 5: 21
Season 6: 13
Season 7: 12
Season 8: 16
Season 9: 50
Season 10: 18
Season 11: 18
Season 12: 24
Season 13: 19
Season 14: 8
Season 15: 1

The above player is Brady Anderson, an outfielder that displayed average/below-average power for his entire career except for one season when he busted out 50 long balls. He returned to his career norms the very next season.

The home run totals for the above players (like This Ones for Phil's 117 BSF) are most likely flukes - a combination of everything going right over a short period of time. Brady Anderson was 32 when he busted out for 50 home runs. Roger Maris was 26 when he went for 61. Both of these players were in the prime of their career and were not players that had a sudden and sustained explosion of power in their late 30s.

Similarly, This Ones for Phil is a newly turned three-year old age when many horses start to realize their full development potential. If the horse had never won a race and was getting waxed by $2,500 maiden claimers and then threw down a number like this I think suspicion would be allowed. But this horse had shown at least some talent and the only thing that makes him look "suspicious" is the figure, which is certainly not some kind of iron-clad, "dead-on-accurate", number.