Beyer speed figures put to the test

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Horseplayers around the country will bet more than $115 million on Saturday afternoon's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

A large portion of that sum -- perhaps $15 million -- will ride on the nose of Bodemeister, the morning-line, 4-1 favorite. Bodemeister looms the people's choice because he won the Arkansas Derby in a romp and he sports the highest Beyer speed figure, by a wide margin, of any horse in the race.

And thereby hangs a budding controversy, sparked this week by renowned trainer Wayne Lukas, who brusquely dismissed the Beyer figures, insisting they had outlived their usefulness.

"Throw 'em out," he told a knot of reporters. "They're as obsolete as high-button shoes. If you go by the Beyer numbers, you're never going to pick a winner. They're just too unpredictable. I don't have any confidence in them and I don't know any other trainer who does."

Lukas singled out a reporter and cried, "If the Beyers were any good, you wouldn't be standing there, with a 39-cent pen, taking notes. You'd be off somewhere sipping pina coladas."

That is setting the fox in the henhouse. The Beyer speed figures are a numerical representation of a horse's performance based on the final time of their races and the speed of the track (fast, slow, muddy, etc.) on that day.

The Daily Racing Form began publishing the figures in 1992 and they have become not only a staple and reference point, but a huge influence on the betting.

Some people swear by them, including their creator, Andy Beyer, the Washington Post racing columnist. He once called his figures "the way, the truth and the light." A website calls them "the most powerful handicapping instrument available."

Others, apparently including Lukas, are not persuaded.

Bodemeister scored a 108 Beyer speed figure in his last race. The horse closest to him is Daddy Nose Best, who ran a 100 while Gemologist, Alpha and Dullahan check in with 98.

These figures shout that Bodemeister is by far the fastest horse in the Derby. In Saturday's Form, Beyer selects Bodemeister with Daddy Nose Best next. "My key Derby play is a cold exacta, Bodemeister-Daddy Nose Best."

With a wave of the pen, Beyer dismisses out of hand five of the most fancied horses -- Hansen, Union Rags, Gemologist, I'll Take Another and Take Charge Indy. Why? Their Beyer figures lag. Says Beyer, "They've been slow, painfully slow."

Lukas notwithstanding, the Beyer figures have run up a pretty impressive record in the Derby. In the 20 years they have been published in the Form, the top Beyer horse has won six times. That is better than the favorites, who have won only four in the same time span.

But look at the Beyer winners: Lil E Tee at 18-1, Silver Charm 4-1, Charismatic 31-1, Fusaichi Pegasus 2-1, War Emblem 20-1, Big Brown 5-2. In five years, two horses shared the top figure. But a $2 win bet on all 25 horses would have cost $50 for a return of $167.

Still, the Beyer figs will be on trial Saturday. If any of his "painfully slow" horses win, it is not going to look too good and Lukas may take a bow. If they finish up the track, Beyer might emerge a nifty winner.

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