As I was going through the past performances for Saturday's Kitten's Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs, I was struck by a couple of odd numbers for the #4-Southern Anthem. Southern Anthem's last race was an 80k Optional Claimer at Churchill Downs at 1 1/8 miles on the grass, a race where he earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest last out Beyer in the Kitten's Joy field. If you look at the internal fractions of that race, Southern Anthem ran the final 1/8 of a mile in a pedestrian 13.11 seconds, with a final 3/8 clocking of 37.65, according to the Formulator interactive charts. That's not what I would call an overly impressive come home time, even with the track rated as "GOOD". The 3/8 clocking is decent but the final 1/8th is pretty slow.
The speed figured assigned seemed high for me as it represents the career best for Southern Anthem. The circumstances, however, seem less than impressive. He didn't put up a big performance in terms of final time, he didn't win by a large margin, and his final factions (a good indicator of turf class) were decent but not exceptional. It's generally accepted that turf races are different beasts from dirt races, as the pace tends to be a little screwy and the horses are generally clustered together in the stretch much more than they are on the main track. But at the same time, when I see a horse with a figure that indicates an all-time best performance I want to understand what he did to accomplish that feat. I found that hard to do with Southern Anthem.
Since a big part of calculating a speed figure is the daily track variant, I pulled the charts of the other two turf races on the card that day at Churchill Downs to compare fractions and final times. I'm not privy to the par times and variants that the Beyer guys use to formulate their figures so I just have to go on my gut instinct when looking at the numbers. Both of the other two turf races came up with fractions that were very slow in the early going. The 2nd race was a 40k Maiden Claimer at a mile and a sixteenth where the leaders went 50+ and 1:15+ for the half and six furlongs. The other turf race was the 6th, a 1 3/8 mile affair that saw an absolute crawl on the front end of 53.51 and 1:19.10 for the half and the six.
If the figure maker computed a variant for the Churchill Downs turf course that day it is very likely that they came up with a number that indicated a slow track; 1 1/16 miles in 1:45+, 1 3/8 miles in 2:20, and a mile and an eighth in 1:50 are all slow times. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is determining whether those slow clockings were the result of a slow course or a product of a slowly run race.
I don't envy a figure maker trying to come up with a solid track variant for a day of turf races as there are so few of these races on the card. How difficult is it to come up with a variant when you have only three races, sometimes including one at a sprint distance, to determine whether or not slow times are the result of track or the pace?
The 6th race, the 1 3/8 mile affair, looks like a race that had little to no pace in it so it's not surprising that the leaders walked through the opening three-quarters of a mile. The 2nd race had a 30/1 shot on the early and uncontested lead, which leads me to believe that the rest of the jockeys were perfectly content to let that horse waltz through the opening stages of the race. The rail was at the hedge that day at Churchill which could be another factor as to why the other jockeys were content to let the early speed saunter along on the front end. There are certainly factors that indicate that the track may not have been that slow but merely had a bunch of slowly run races.
Another option as to the reasoning behind this figure could be due to projecting based on previous races of the top finishers in the field. If you look at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place horses in Southern Anthem's last race (Caberneigh, Forest Attack and No Inflation), their figures for that race generally fit in with their overall pattern. No Inflation had earned figures of 88 and 91 for his two prior starts and earned a 91 for this race. Forest Attack came in with a 96 and an 89, he earned a 92. Caberneigh entered off of successive 83 figures and posted a 93, a figure jump that roughly equaled that of the winner.
If the Southern Anthem figure was based off of a projection method it seems like the figure maker had two options to choose from. The top finisher could have been assigned a lower figure which would ensure that the top two horses would have likely put up figures very similar to their previous races, but the 3rd and 4th place horses would have come in quite lower than their recent efforts. Or the figure maker could assign higher figures to the 1st and 2nd place horses ensuring that the 3rd and 4th place horses earn figures in line with their previous efforts. I'm not sure there is a right or wrong answer in either of those options, it really depends on what you believed happened in this race. Did the top two horses run the best races of their careers or did they run an average race and the 3rd and 4th place horses run poorly?
My purpose in this post wasn't to suggest that the figure maker was wrong or that figures themselves are unreliable. There are handicappers that have won a lot of money in their lifetime due to their ability to calculate very reliable figures. My intent was to illustrate the factors that can influence how a figure is calculated and also to illustrate the fact that turf races, in my opinion, tend to be much harder to analyze from a purely numbers perspective.
Whether a player relies on speed figures or not, I think it's important to understand how a figure is calculated and the factors that can influence the numbers. The top Beyer horse in a race will generally take a lot of action from the crowd; anybody that does to the track on a daily basis has seen that. I think it's important to be able to verify the information the crowd is using to come to their decision in order to determine whether or not they are on or off the mark.