Mind games

Two things from the 2013 Kentucky Derby stand out.

One is the amazing popularity of horse racing in the U.S. Remember all the stories about horse racing being a fading sport? Well, it seems nobody likes horse racing but the people. About 150,000 turned out in the rain in Louisville to watch Orb defeat others doing the dog paddle. And the TV ratings were through the clouds, a 10.4 number. This rating obliterates the very best of other "major" sports like the World Series, which draws something in the 7s; it out-drives Masters golf, which gets around an 8; and even outraces the NBA Finals, which typically draws in the low 10s, even with LeBron. And horse racing's huge number comes even though most hard-core horse race fans are not home watching TV but instead are at tracks, simulcast and off-track venues around the country, wagering and going unrated. A rating that took into account fans watching the race outside the home would probably be worth five more TV points.

Also prominent in the Derby wake is the largely ineffective manner in which numbers, or power rankings, have been used recently to search for winners.

With instant gratification comes instant analysis, which is usually all wet. Rain changes everything in a horse race. Mud in your eye can make chumps of fair weather all-stars. An off track, in particular, brings into play a seldom-used horse race handicapping instrument: the mind. Here's what a sloppy track proves when a horse runs on dry land the next time: not much.

The chief method of looking for a winner in a horse race is by scoping out the Beyer speed figure or some other number that enables the brain to remain in pizza and beer mode. Using somebody else's number gives the horse player an excuse.

Using a horse's rating beats thinking because, in an era of unnecessary extravagance that makes sitting quietly with your thoughts a lost art, thinking is hard work.

Numbers and ratings have been around forever. Primitive horse race numbers rank speed against the best time at that track. More sophisticated numbers try to create a perfect racing world that would pinpoint the best horse when matched against any others on any surface. It stands to reason that a horse winning by nine in a graded stakes race is going to have a pretty good figure by any scientist's hand.

But as top numbers runners find themselves foraging for seventh place in the best races, it seems to be dawning on horse players that the single best use of a speed figure is not to predict a winner but instead to suggest improvement. Improving young horses win big races.

The best of all the figures is the Beyer number. Imagine something being innovative enough to be named for its creator. And the Beyer number is not about to become an Edsel. But every so often horse players need to be reminded that there is no secret system that can overcome the unpredictability of an animal race. Numbers can be obviously inflated. I would seldom play a 95 Santa Anita Beyer in a five-horse field over a 90 Florida Beyer in a full field. What size piece of the handicapping pie chart should the Beyer and other numbers occupy?

Other essentials to consider are:

Running styles
Post position
Size of the field
Track surface
Distance of the race
Common handicapping sense, open mind
Training, workouts
Track bias

It is important the horse player be objective enough to realize what he or she has just seen. Two things stood out in this Derby: Orb's improvement, and Normandy Invasion's wacky ride, taking the lead so early, as if they had moved the finish line up the track.

Here's what all recent Derby winners have had in common: They didn't have the highest numbers going in.