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HORSE RACING : Grand Canyon Confounds Experts

December 20, 1989|JAY HOVDEY

Grand Canyon's performance in the Hollywood Futurity last Sunday startled those who compile sophisticated speed ratings on North American races. They refused to believe what their numbers told them.

Mark Hopkins, who along with the Washington Post's Andrew Beyer analyzes races for the Bloodstock Research Information network, has assigned Grand Canyon a figure of 106 for the Futurity. The son of Fappiano ran the mile in 1:33, fastest ever for a 2-year-old. When Hopkins did his initial calculations, the speed figure for the race was 120.

"That was impossible," Hopkins said from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It would have meant that every horse in the field ran the best race of his life."

To put the 120 into perspective, Sunday Silence was given a 124 figure in winning the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park on Nov. 4. Based on the figure, it was the best race he had ever run. No one who saw the race would disagree.

Nearly every serious handicapper has dealt with speed figures in one form or another. Not to be confused with the speed index found in the Daily Racing Form, they are based on an analysis of a horse's class, racing time and track conditions. They allow a race run at one track to be compared to a race run at another. In essence, it is a fairly successful method of comparing apples to oranges.

In discounting his original 120 and assigning a 106 to Grand Canyon, Hopkins was exercising his option to use a "one-race variant." Since the final time and the 6 1/2-length winning margin were irrefutable, Hopkins focused on the preparation of the Hollywood Park strip before the Futurity.

"It's been known to happen," Hopkins said. "A racetrack will pour on the water, change the harrows, just to try for a track record. Whether or not it happened in this case, I don't know for sure. But the the figure was so out of line, I had to assume something had changed between the seventh and eighth races that day."

Hollywood Park officials said there was no special track preparation before the Futurity, and Wayne Lukas, trainer and part owner of Grand Canyon, noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

"I was there and I believe what I saw," Lukas said. "The tractors and water trucks went around there just like they always do."

Whether you want to believe a 120 figure, a 106 or anything in between, Grand Canyon's performance was still the best of the year by a 2-year-old in 1989--at least in terms of speed-figure analysis. The best of the rest of the division included:

--Rhythm in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream Park: 98.

--Summer Squall in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga: 101.

--Magical Mile in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship: 101.

--Adjudicating in the Cowdin Stakes at Belmont: 101.

The only other figure in Grand Canyon's neighborhood was the dubious 107 assigned the New York colt Champagneforashley in winning the Nashua Stakes by nine lengths Dec. 9 on the winterized track at Aqueduct, a surface infamous for its idiosyncrasies.

"I've got question marks by all the races that day," he said. "Although Champagneforashley is a legitimate colt, that figure may need re-evaluation later on."

Because of the post-race campaigning by Lukas, East Coast newspaper coverage of the Futurity and the presence of the speed-figure experts, Grand Canyon has a chance to win the Eclipse Award as the top 2-year-old colt despite his loss in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to Rhythm and the undefeated record of Summer Squall.

Unfortunately, the Eclipse Award voting process works against Grand Canyon, or any other horse who runs an exceptional race after mid-December. Races run after Dec. 3 are omitted from the packet of past performances included with the ballots sent to 300 turf reporters, racing officials and Daily Racing Form staff members. Only the most diligent voters will seek out and evaluate the results.

And each year there are glaring omissions in the list of horses proposed for consideration. As one voter said, "It's like leaving out Wade Boggs' April stats when you're voting on MVP, or ignoring Tony Gwynn completely."

The information package is assembled by a committee composed of columnist Joe Hirsch and national editor Fred Grossman of the Daily Racing Form; Rich Schulhoff, service bureau director of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and turf reporter Steven Crist of the New York Times. All live in the East.

Among the horses omitted this year were these major stakes winners based in California: Music Merci, Super Diamond, Saratoga Passage, Peace, Pranke, Cherokee Colony, Fantastic Look, Rahy, Sabona and Political Ambition.

Among the horses included on the list were Once Wild, who never won a race in 1989; Judy's Red Shoes, who ran in only one major race and finished third, and Blondeinamotel, whose only stakes victory came in a race restricted to Canadian-breds. All are Eastern-based.

What is at stake? Even a second- or third-place finish in Eclipse voting means valuable publicity for a horse's owner and breeder. When the voting is flawed, the racing fan ultimately suffers.

Horse Racing Notes

Eddie Delahoussaye and Gary Stevens, the top two riders at the Hollywood Park meeting, have taken a week off for the holidays and will return on opening day at Santa Anita. With five racing days remaining at the Inglewood track, a hot streak by either apprentice Corey Nakatani or Laffit Pincay could deprive Delahoussaye of his third consecutive riding championship, after he won the Del Mar and Oak Tree at Santa Anita titles.

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