For many years Washington Post horse racing writer Andrew Beyer was my hero. For a time, after the publication of his influential handicapping book Picking Winners, I became a virtual stalker, leaving messages on his answering machine and trying to sidle up next to him during the Daily Double at the old Sports Palace at Laurel Race Course.
Over the years, our relationship has cooled, largely because now we actually know each other.
Be that as it may, Andy never has been able to really get a handle on the Kentucky Derby. For many years, he admitted to his Derby cluelessness. Meanwhile, my own list of Derby successes has been pretty impressive. I picked the Derby winners in 2006 and 2007, Barbaro and Street Sense. I have nailed such unlikely winners as Winning Colors in 1998, Sunday Silence in 1989, Strike the Gold in 1991, Silver Charm in 1997, and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 (See Kim's current Derby picks here). I doubt whether Beyer had any of them.
For those who don’t closely follow racing, Andy is the guru, the Einstein who created the “Beyer Speed Figures.” From the mid 1970s until last year, the Beyer Speed Figures were the greatest advance in the history of gambling. For many years one had to buy his book and figure out how to compute them. I spents hundreds of hours of my life doing that. Then the Daily Racing Form decided to buy the Beyer Speed Figures and print them next to the entries and past performances for every horse at every track in America.
It was nice not to have to spend seven to eight hours every night doing the math. On the other hand, now anybody could pay $5 for the paper and get the numbers. Horses with high Beyer numbers, now widely circulated, would immediately be bet down at the windows. To try to scrounge out a profit, the trick became trying to use the numbers, trying to figure which horses were likely to replicate numbers and which were likely to “bounce” off of them and run a poorer race than the last number.
Beyer numbers were predicated on the fact that not every racing surface in America was the same. Dirt tracks varied not only from place to place, but from day to day. How fast a horse could run on a particular track could be affected by rain and wind. Andy had figured out how to compare and adjust all racing surfaces and change a horse’s final time into one handy “Beyer” number.
And then two years ago, something bad happened to Beyer Speed Figures. To try to make racing surfaces safer for the horses, state racing commissions began mandating the installation of “synthetic” racing surfaces to replace the old dirt tracks. The first two places to put it in were Turfway Park and Keeneland Racetrack in Kentucky. Now all the major tracks in Southern California, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar also have it.
This was great for the horses, but not so good for the industry that had become Beyer Speed Figures. Synthetic tracks show very little variance from day to day. Overnight, the tracks had rendered Beyer obsolete. It was as if one day a scientist had disproven E=MC2, and it went from a principle of physics to a dusty footnote.
Beyer has not taken this well. Despite his personal and financial interst in the topic, the Washington Post has run columns from him critical of the surface switch, even though the evidence that it saves the lives of horses seems indisputable.
Beyer has become obsessed with the switch to synthetic race tracks, but never has that become more clear than in his Derby picks this year. In past years, Beyer would still use the basic principles of handicapping, looking at pedigree, past performances, recent form, trainer and jockey analysis. His own Beyer speed figures would be considered as well.
But this year his picks came down to one simple calculation. Beyer has thrown out any horse that ran well on a synthetic track and picked any horse that didn’t. In effect he has bet on himself. He hates synthetic racetracks and won’t pick any horse that does. His top Derby selection this year is Pyro. His rationale for picking Pyro was that this colt ran his worst race in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Beyer dismissed with contempt Monba, the horse that won the race and finished 11 lengths ahead of Pyro. Beyer’s second choices in the Derby is Z Fortune. Beyer loves Z Fortune, a homely New York-bred horse with a modest racing record for one simple reason—his hooves have never touched the hated synthetic tracks.
Horses that have won traditional stepping stone races to the Derby at all dirt Churchill Downs, like Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John and Blue Grass Stakes winner Monba, Beyer says to put an X through.
For him, it’s as simple as that. Beyer has become Ahab, obsessed by the great white synthetic race track that he can’t understand and which is destroying his life’s work.
Even in the best of times, Beyer was never able to understand the dynamics of the Kentucky Derby. Now he has picked Pyro to win in a sense to redeem his own life’s work.
The fact is that Colonel John, although all his races have been in Southern California, loves the dirt track. His morning workouts have been nothing short of amazing. It is a truism of racing that a great horse can run on anything. Colonel John, whose sire won not one but two Breeders Cup Classic races, will show that to be the case on Saturday.
And Beyer didn’t mention a horse in the race named Court Vision, #4. Court Vision won two stakes as a two year old, and one of them was right here at Churchill Downs and the other at Aqueduct. But he also won a race on the synthetic track at Keeneland, proving that adage about a good horse and any surface.
Watch for Court Vision to be coming after Colonel John in the stretch and box your exacta, 4-10 and 10-4, for a big payoff on Derby Day.