Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Songbird v. Mor Spirit: Tale of the Figure Tape

Nothing seems to cause the hair on the back of the necks of horseplayers to rise up in anger more than a horse receiving a speed figure higher or lower than what they "think" that horse actually earned.

Want to start an on-line fight (or, god forbid, a Twitter War)? Simply develop a speed figure or some kind of horse rating system and then rate a horse that somebody else likes lower than a horse that said person doesn't doesn't think much of at all. Like moths to the flame, the invariable "that figure is too [high, low, insane, etc.]! will pour forth from the masses.

Why this arguing occurs, other than the fact that horse players just love to argue, I'll never know. Any handicapper that knows anything about constructing speed figures, or any kind of rating system, should understand that these figures are as much about art as they are science. [And if you don't, simply spend a few months calculating your own figures. At some point in the process you'll have to make a judgement call (most likely due to your variant) and the "art" part of the endeavor will be on full display.] Which leads me to the topic of this post, the Tale of the Figure Tape between Songbird and Mor Spirit following their respective victories at Santa Anita on Saturday, February 6th.

Songbird won Saturday's Las Virgenes by 6 1/2 lengths in a sparkling performance over a ridiculously over-matched field of three-year-old fillies. She covered the mile distance in a final time of 1:36.84 while churning out fractions of 23.63, 47.01, 1:10.99, and 1:23.34. Mike Smith never asked her for a thing as she cruised to victory in gate-to-wire fashion.

Two races before Songbird, Mor Spirit won the Robert B. Lewis also in relatively easy fashion, clicking off a final time of 1:43.21 for the mile and a sixteenth journey over the Santa Anita main track. According to the Trakus charts, Mor Spirit clicked off splits of 23.97, 48.07, 1:12.51, and 1:37.10.

From the raw data from those two races, various figure and ratings scientists/artists formulated the following numbers for each horse:

Figure Songbird Mor Spirit
Beyer 87 92
Bris 95 99
Equibase 102 108
Perf. Fig. -29 -15
RPR 119 114
TimeformUS 109 109

The figures and ratings from each race paints a different picture depending on the factors involved in the calculation.
  • Beyer, Bris and Equibase follow the traditional speed figure model which does not adjust for pace. Under those three systems, Mor Spirit was clearly the faster horse.
  • Performance Figures (under which the lower number is better) adds a pace factor into the equation and, as a result, rewards Songbird with the better performance. 
  • The Racing Post Ratings, which are not speed figures and measure overall performance based on factors like weight, time, level of competition, etc. [good luck trying to find a comprehensive explanation as to how RPRs are calculated], rated Songbird as five pounds better than Mor Spirit.
  • Timeform US, which also incorporates pace into their ratings, rated each race the same on their scale. 
So which one is right? Hell if I know.

Each horse ran a quality race but the manner in which they accomplished their victory was very different.

Songbird was clearly faster early as she controlled the early part of the race and ran her rivals into the ground. However, because she was in complete control at the top of the stretch, Songbird was in a workout-like jog the length of the stretch and slowed down considerably in the final quarter mile. Mor Spirit was slower in the early part of the race but clicked off a strong 24.59 quarter to the mile mark and then came home the final 1/16th in an impressive 6.11 without Gary Stevens asking for his best effort.

If Smith had asked Songbird for more run in the last part of the race could she have matched or exceeded Mor Spirit's closing kick? Maybe. Maybe not. But regardless, her final time was her final time. And, similarly, Gary Stevens wasn't exactly calling out for Mor Spirit to dig all the way down for his very best.

In reality, since these ratings and figures are measuring different things, they really aren't wrong or right. If you are simply trying to measure the fastest horse based on final time, Mor Spirit was faster. If you are trying to look at final time in relation to pace, Songbird's effort becomes more impressive and is, possibly, better. And, of course, we haven't even entered into the discussion of ground loss.

Songbird, leading her rival and running near the rail, covered the mile in 5,344 feet. Mor Spirit (and we'll just measure him to the mile mark), covered the first eight furlongs in 5,368 feet. Hmm.

So back to the original questions: which horse was better on Saturday?

Back to my original answer: hell if I know.

I suppose we don't have to worry about which horse is faster until Songbird's connections decide to run her against the boys. We'll probably be waiting a long time.

As for each horse and their potential this spring, it's hard not to be supremely impressed with Songbird. In addition to the fact that she keyed a huge Breeders' Cup Saturday for me (cough, humblebrag, cough), I keep wondering how fast could she run if she's ever asked to really dig down and charge through the final quarter mile. In that respect, I was a bit disappointed in the foot-off-the-gas final quarter mile in the Las Virgenes. You don't have to take the whip out in the lane but I wouldn't have minded if Smith had asked her to run the whole way, just for my own curiosity. But, I'm selfish like that.

As for Mor Spirit, he certainly looks like a colt that is going to be better the longer he runs. Watching the Lewis, I had the impression that the mile and a sixteenth was a bit short for him, and that a mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter would produce and even better performance. That being said, there's one element of Mor Spirit that I don't love in terms of the Kentucky Derby and that's his turn of foot.

Mor Spirit took a bit to get himself going in the final stretch of the Lewis and I don't love horses with that style in the Derby. Maybe his effort was simply the result of Stevens not being concerned at all with losing the race (confident ride doesn't describe the trip), and the Santa Anita Derby might tell us a much more about this colt. But I do worry that a horse like Mor Spirit would not respond well if he were to encounter significant traffic at Churchill. On the other hand, if Mor Spirit takes another step forward in his next start, there's no doubt he'll be a major player in Louisville cause he certainly has the talent.

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