Part 3 of his analysis today. Part 4 tomorrow looks at how to interpret those speed figures and pick a winner.
Picking the winner in a horse race with 20 runners is a daunting task, but there has been one metric that has historically been very reliable, if not in picking specific winners, then in identifying win contenders. These are Beyer Speed Figures, which are published exclusively in the Daily Racing Form.
Recognizing the value of the Beyer figs is interesting, because throughout most of their public history -- speed figures have been around forever, but they have only been available to the public at large since they were published in the Racing Times in the early 1990s -- the Beyer figs have been reviled for ineffectiveness when it comes to the Derby. It became a running joke that horsemen would seek to influence Andy Beyer -- to try to make him pick someone else's horse.
But a look at the data suggests that this has been a largely unfair criticism. Beyer Speed Figures are only one handicapping tool, one factor, and in the Derby, anything can happen, and there is no way that any single factor can take into account the totality of the field, and in how a race will be run. The Beyer figs have certainly been a far more reliable gauge than, say, pedigree analysis, or its ludicrous bastard stepchild, dosage, which has become a running joke, and which very few handicappers take seriously anymore. If you want to get a bunch of grizzled horseplayers to laugh at you, start talking about "center of distribution" and "chefs de race," and then wait for the rolled-up programs to start flying at your noggin.
Historically, the magic number for the Beyers was 100: if a horse had not earned a figure of 100 as a 3-year-old, preferably in a prep race a month or two prior to the Derby, then the horse could be dismissed a win contender. Even big longshot winners of the race, like Giacomo and War Emblem, earned figs above the century mark. We're going from memory here, but the only horse we can remember who had vastly inferior figs, and won the Derby anyway, was Mine that Bird in 2009, and that remains perhaps the most inscrutable result in a major race in our lifetime. We still think that Mine that Bird was a massive underlay, even at 50-1, because on form he should have been at least 150-1, and probably even higher. Though in recent years the 100 Beyer threshold has become less of a hard-and-fast rule -- 3-year-olds are not running as fast, either in the preps or in the Derby itself, and qualifying figs the past 10 or 12 years have been lower -- the takeaway is that in handicapping the Derby, it is wise to set a minimum requirement, figure-wise, to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
The history of this is interesting in its own stats-geek way, of course, but what we all want is a way to turn this into a way to dope out this year's Derby field. So let's turn to the runners in the 2019 edition, with the late-breaking and shocking news that Omaha Beach, the morning-line favorite and perhaps the likeliest winner, was scratched late on Wednesday.
A preliminary perusal of the figs this year reinforces the impression we got during the running of the prep races, that this crop of 3-year-olds is evenly matched, and without a clear standout. The figs say that Gray Magician and Plus Que Parfait are automatic throwouts, and that the rest of the runners, even Bodexpress, who drew into the race when Omaha Beach was scratched, have a chance. They've all earned figures over 90, with most in the mid to upper 90s, and that suggests that virtually all the horses entered are capable of a top effort that could win the race.
Which means we'll have to delve deeper into the figs, and into how each runner earned their figs, to try to asses how the race will be run, and how the shape of the race, particularly from a pace standpoint, will impact which horses have the best chance. If identifying horses with qualifying figs is Speed Handicapping 101, then interpreting the figs is Speed Handicapping 201, and tomorrow, we'll take a look at both of this to try to make sense of this year's edition of the Kentucky Derby.