Unlucky numbers

Here's a typical high dollar three-year old race in Los Angeles or New York.

The gate opens and two of them pop out and contest for the lead. Two others break in average fashion and run one behind the other five or six lengths from the leaders. Two more leave the gate late and lope along a dozen lengths from the front as though their owners had gotten a late note from the track: Please enter something so we can have a horse race today. The two with speed continue on around the track with one carrying on and one slowing down. One of the two in the middle continues onward. The other stops. Neither of the two late runners has a chance to win. One of the quick breakers wins the race by seven. A stalker runs second by three. One of the late horses finishes third almost by default. It is a six-horse field. The only potential trouble is a jockey falling off a horse. The winner pays $4. The $2 exacta pays $10. The trifecta pays $18. The winner has a Beyer speed rating of 100 and is proclaimed as one of the horses to beat in Louisville. And so it goes from LA and NYC on the lonesome big city road to the Kentucky Derby.

Here's a trend that has become obvious with young horses with the biggest numbers: They're losing.

Included in all the Kentucky Derby prep race information is a Beyer speed number, or a power rating figure custom-computed by a horse race publication. These numbers are intended to take the headaches out of handicapping. Who has the time to do the math, right? Let somebody else execute the computations that show which was the best race, a six furlong win at Hee Haw Downs, or a second place finish in a route at Gulfstream.

What could possibly be wrong with somebody else coming up with the horse race components important in designing the mythical level playing field, and then letting a computer put a number to the best and the worse? Well, just that, actually: Getting to an answer, solving a puzzle, is educational. The best handicappers do more than take note of high rating numbers.

Here's a trend that has become obvious with young horses with the biggest numbers: They're losing.

And here's why: Lots of big speed and power rating numbers are inflated.

When it rains, tracks are sealed, speed usually holds better than ever, and ratings increase as though the horses had been running downhill. It's amazing how many experienced handicappers don't give an off track its due. Going from or to a muddy track is one of the most determining factors in a horse race. It's why handicapping the day before a race can get a person in trouble. The change in a track's surface is like seeing these lines in the Daily Racing Form: Reins added. Jockey fresh from rehab.

The size of the field can be as important as a track's condition when it comes to giving a speed rating its due.

Horse racing is currently experiencing a short field epidemic, particularly in New York and LA.

Eight-horse fields are considered jam-packed. Five and six-horse fields are routine.

The definition of a lousy jockey is one who can find trouble in a six-horse field. Running into a horse's backside for no reason whatsoever is about all the peril that's available.

Meanwhile in the heartland full fields of three-year olds are banging around like bumper cars in Derby prep races. It could be why horses coming out of Arkansas and New Orleans have what amount to deflated Beyer numbers due partly to the crowds, but show up well in the Triple Crown races. What's harder, showing speed versus four or showing speed versus 19? Would you rather try to pass two or pass 17? How many would you rather stalk, two or half a dozen?

Coming from short prep fields to the Derby zoo of 20 entrants is often costly to the uninitiated.

The most valuable speed rating is probably the 90 in a full field that comes from this improving sequence 80-85-90, and not the 95 rating versus five.

Many top Derby contenders will compete at Churchill against three times as many horses as they have raced against all year.

Say a horse has a top speed figure of 100 versus five others. Subtracting half a ratings point from that field of five from the Derby field of 20 usually turns out to make sense. It's called the common sense number. It puts some humanity back in handicapping.