Monday, May 19, 2008

Big Brown vs. Big Red

After his dazzling performances in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, everyone wants to know: Is Big Brown really the reincarnation of Secretariat, the Michael Jordan of the thoroughbred world? The first wave of nay-sayers (no pun intended) included me, who discounted his undefeated record going in to the Derby as more of a liability than an asset - only six horses had previously won the Run for the Roses with no defeats. The critics also pointed out that a horse with only three starts hadn't won since Regret in 1915, and nobody had won from the #20 post position since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Big Brown clearly didn't read any of these statistics.

An article in today's Times gives voice to a new wave of Big Brown doubters - those that say he is an excellent horse among a less than stellar crop of three-year-olds, but he ain't no Big Red. In the article, Robby Albarado, Curlin's rider, points out that last year, Hard Spun, Street Sense, Any Given Saturday, and Curlin were all three-year-olds at the same time, and he doesn't even mention Rags to Riches (whom I'm sure he'd just as soon forget).

Some numbers shed a little light on the situation, but still leave room for interpretation and ambiguity. Secretariat's fractions for the five quarter-miles in the 1973 Derby were 25 1/5, 24, 23 4/5, 23 2/5, and 23 seconds, each one faster than the last. His final time for the race was 1:59 2/5 seconds, and the record still stands today. His Beyer Speed Figure for the race was a 139, the highest ever assigned (Beyer figures have been around since the 70's, and began appearing in the Daily Racing Form in 1992).

Big Brown's quarters in the Derby were 23 1/5, 23 4/5, 24, 25 2/5 and 25 2/5 seconds, for a final time of 2:01 4/5. Besides the slower time (12 lengths slower than Secretariat's if you assume 1/5 second = one length), this succession of fractions unfolds in a much more typical way; the vast majority of horses, even great ones, run slower fractions at the end of a race than at the beginning - the winner is the one that slows down the least. Big Brown's Derby Beyer figure was a very impressive 109, but placed in context with all of the 21st century Derby winners, it doesn't soar above the pack:

Street Sense (2007): 109
Barbaro (2006): 111
Giacomo (2005): 100
Smarty Jones (2004): 107
Funny Cide (2003): 109
War Emblem (2002): 114
Monarchos (2001): 116
Fusaichi Pegasus (2000): 108

So it sounds like I'm joining up with the new crowd of doubters, right? Not necessarily - this is where the ambiguity and interpretation comes into play. Len Ragozin's "Sheets" are the speed figures that present the most credible competition to Andrew Beyer's more famous numbers. And Len Friedman, the principle handicapper at the "Sheets," calculated Big Brown's performance as the fastest speed figure he's ever recorded. Unlike Beyer's numbers, Ragozin's speed figures decrease for faster performances, with zero being best. Big Brown's "Sheets" number was a -3/4, a quarter-point better than Secretariat's Derby, which was -1/2. Why so different? The most likely explanation is the fact that Ragozin uses distance from the rail in his calculations, and BB raced four-wide at both turns.

And there's another factor that's incalculable: Big Brown never seemed like he was straining in the stretch in either the Derby or the Preakness - especially the latter. If an Easy Goer or a Sunday Silence, or an Affirmed or an Alydar were really testing him in the final furlong, who knows what he would have been capable of? Maybe he would have wilted, or maybe he would have broken all previous records.

Some are saying that in the 2008 Belmont Stakes, Casino Drive will give Big Brown the real neck-and-neck, eye-to-eye stretch run that no one else has showed him, like the one that Rags to Riches gave to Curlin in last year's Belmont. Maybe so, but I think that Robby Albarado has it right when he points out that Big Brown's real test will come if his connections choose to put him in the Breeder's Cup Classic in the fall. If Big Brown shows up, he will be facing older horses for the first time, and the best of the exceptional class of 2007 (including defending champ Curlin). It's already been announced that BB won't race as a four-year-old, so if he doesn't turn up for the BC Classic, even with a Triple Crown under his belt, there might always be a tiny question mark in the air.