Paulick Report Forum brought to you by Breeders’ Cup: Talking Speed Figures with Beyer

by | 11.17.2010 | 10:19am
Andy Beyer

Andrew Beyer's “Picking Winners: A Horseplayer's Guide,” published in 1975, was one of the first horse racing books of any kind I ever read. First and foremost, it was a fascinating explanation of how to compile your own speed figures based on the formula Beyer developed after leaving Harvard University in 1965. (Legend has it Beyer didn't graduate because he skipped a final exam scheduled on the same day as the Belmont Stakes.)

“Picking Winners” also went a long toward making the challenge of handicapping and betting on  a horse race a whole lot of fun.

Beyer began his writing career at the Washington Daily News in 1970 and switched to the Washington Post in '78, where he had a long and influential run as the paper's horse racing columnist. He is now retired and occasionally contributes to the Post and Daily Racing Form, where the Beyer Speed Figures he invented are a mainstay in the past performances.

Beyer is controversial and doesn't mince words, whether he's writing or about medication and regulatory issues, synthetic tracks, or who should win election as Horse of the Year. I don't always agree with Andy, but I always respect his opinion on any racing-related subject. He is an outstanding reporter and writer, but his longest-lasting contribution to racing will be his creation of the Beyer Speed Figures and his willingness to bring them to a wide audience rather than keep them to himself for his own betting purposes. Beyer discussed a wide range of topics with the Paulick Report several days after this year's Breeders' Cup championships.

What kind of number did you give Blame for winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, and how does it compare historically in the context of that race?

The figure for the Classic, for both Blame and Zenyatta, was 111, which is the weakest number for the race except for Raven's Pass two years ago.  It is far below great horses such as Ghostzapper and Easy Goer, who each earned a 124.  I think the number puts Zenyatta's talents into proper perspective.  She's not just a synthetic-track freak. She ranks among the best U.S. fillies and mares ever. (Azeri, the last female Horse of the Year, had a career best of 111.) Her fans can reasonably argue that she's the best U.S. female ever. But you can't rank her alongside the all-time great males, as a lot of people maintained before the Breeders' Cup.

I occasionally hear Eclipse Award voters saying this horse should win a divisional championship or Horse of the Year because he or she got a superior figure. Should Beyer Speed Figures be used that way to separate horses in Eclipse Award voting when all other things are equal or close to it?
When you don't have head-to-head comparisons available, I certainly think that speed figures are a more accurate gauge of horses' ability than standards such as “Who won the most Grade Ones?”

You made some adjustments in how your team calculates figures for synthetic tracks in the last year. Are you satisfied with the numbers you are now producing on those tracks?
Last year, when we finally had a great deal of data about figures on synthetic tracks, we found a subtle flaw in our calculations that we never could have anticipated.  The top-class races at a track were producing figures lower than they had on dirt; at the same time, the bottom classes (such as. maiden-claiming fillies) were producing higher figures.  This was not logical, and the same phenomenon was happening at every track. We made some technical changes to the mathematical underpinnings of our calculations and I am satisfied with the results.  A theoretical horse with the same ability on dirt and synthetics ought to run about the same figure on each: Zenyatta got a 112 on the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita in '09 and a 111 on dirt this year.

Nevertheless, synthetic tracks pose other problems that we rarely encounter on the dirt. The early pace on synthetics is sometimes so slow that the horses can't accelerate fast enough at the end to run the fastest final time of which they are capable.  If a horse is capable of running a mile in 1:36, but the first six furlongs of a race have been run in 1:14, he won't get to the wire in 1:36. In such cases, we don't want to give the horses in the field figures that are ridiculously low, so we'll assign a figure to the race that more accurately reflects the horses' true level of ability.

How many people actually do the calculations, and has there been much turnover in who works on the figures?
My partner, Mark Hopkins, and I have five employees; each of the seven of us has tracks for which he is responsible. In addition, Mark and I take an overview of the whole operation. We have had very little turnover. Randy Moss and Dick Jerardi have been calculating figures since they read “Picking Winners” in 1975 and they have been part of our fig-making team since the very beginning.

There are occasional criticisms from the West Coast saying good horses in California don't earn as high a figure as good horses in New York—even before the synthetic tracks were installed there. Are there unintentional regional biases?
People love to second-guess the figures, and there are plenty of situations where I'll readily admit that we're uncertain about a particular day or a particular number. But I am totally confident that our figures are in line with each other at tracks across the country.  An 80 in California is equal to an 80 in New York or in Kamloops, British Columbia for that matter.

Readers will sometimes observe that a horse earns an 80 at one track and a 90 at another and leap to the conclusion from that anecdotal evidence that the figures are too high somewhere or too low somewhere else. However, we have the capability to analyze the results of all the horses who ship in and out of a track. For example, we can ask the computer: Show us every horse who shipped between Charles Town and Mountaineer in 2010 and the figure he earned in each place. We make such comparisons all over the country.  Sometimes we'll find that the figures are slightly misaligned. If a large sample of shippers runs on average one point higher when they go to Charles Town, we might subtract a point from all the races at CT.  When readers see that all the figures at a track have been raised or lowered by a point or two, that's what's happened. We're continually checking to be sure that tracks are properly aligned.

You probably have more competition than ever before with Thoro-Graph, Ragozin Sheets, Brisnet and even Equibase getting into the act. How do Beyer Speed Figures differ or compare to other performance numbers?
I don't take seriously any speed figures that are purely computer-generated. There are too many situations that require human oversight. A strictly computerized methodology will too often produce a figure that defies common sense.

I respect the Ragozin and Thoro-Graph operations; I am sure they take their work as seriously as we do.  We have different methodologies and philosophies.  The Beyer Speed Figures purport to do only one thing: express how fast a horse has run in any previous race. The Ragozin and Thoro-Graph numbers include some other factors—most notably the ground that horses lose by going wide on the turns. I question the logic of taking one aspect of a horse's trip (ground loss) and incorporating that into his figure while ignoring other aspects that might be even more important (particularly pace.) I don't share the Sheet Guys' devotion to the Bounce Theory and to the idea that you can look at a sequence of numbers on a page and predict whether a horse is going to improve or regress today.

Is making money at the races more difficult today than it used to be, when the Daily Racing Form speed rating (which took the track record and factored in beaten lengths) was the primary number available to most horseplayers?

Absolutely.  In the 1970s and 1980s, speed handicappers would regularly collect giant prices on horses with standout figures. Those days, alas, are long gone.

What else about the game has changed the most over the last 25 years?
The supreme importance of the trainer as a handicapping factor. You may interpret this as being synonymous with the supreme importance of drugs. Sure, the skill of trainers has always been important, and there were miracle-workers like Oscar Barrera decades ago. But now practically every track in America has a trainer or trainers who dramatically improve almost every horse they claim and who post outlandish winning percentages. Bill Mott — maybe the best horseman in America — has never won with more than 25% of his starters in a year, but guys now come out of nowhere to win at a 30 or 40% clip.  If the name of the trainer was blacked out in the past performances, you could not handicap intelligently

What keeps you going back to the track and the betting windows (though they might be virtual windows these days)?
It's still the most stimulating mental challenge I know.

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