The creation of speed figures to handicap horse races dates back further than you might think. Horseplayer tomes published in the mid-1930's suggested people were boiling down race performances to one number, teaching others how to do it and selling their ready-made figures.
Today, a number of companies offer speed or performance figures to the public, and while some of the philosophies and principles are similar between them, there are many differences. It's not uncommon to see discrepancies in how certain race performances are rated by the various figure makers. We thought it might be helpful to understand those similarities and differences — to essentially better comprehend how the speed figure sausage gets made.
Each day this week, we'll explore one of the companies making figures. We begin with perhaps the most well-known number out there: the Beyer Speed Figure.
The Beyer Method
The secret sauce to creating Beyer Speed Figures isn't secret at all. When he wrote Picking Winners in 1975, Andrew Beyer told the world exactly how he generated his numbers, and his formula has stood the test of time. Picking Winners was translated into several languages and people all over the world still use the Beyer methodology and the mathematics behind it to generate handicapping figures.
“Our figures do not purport to tell everything about a horse. They really only tell one thing which is the most important thing in the game and that is how fast the horse ran,” said Beyer. “The components of our calculations, it's simply the time of the race, the distance and the inherent speed of the racetrack.”
The final speed figure that appears in Daily Racing Form past performances begins with a Speed Rating, based on a chart of final times at different distances. For example, a horse that runs six furlongs in 1:09 and two-fifths seconds earns a Speed Rating of 115. That's the same Speed Rating a horse would earn for going seven furlongs in 1:22 flat. So, every horse gets a number to start with, for comparison's sake.
Of course, it doesn't end there. Beyer and his team of eight have calculated “par” times for various class levels and distances. After averaging final times for a specific card, the team determines how much slower or faster than par a racetrack was on a particular day. That number, called the Track Variant, is subtracted or added to the Speed Rating to determine the Beyer Speed Figure. So in the case above, if the Track Variant was determined to be -10, the horse with a Speed Rating of 115 would receive a Beyer Speed Figure of 105.
Beyer describes his number as a “pure” speed figure. It was never designed to be a handicapping panacea. It's a tool to determine how fast a horse ran. It reveals nothing about the traffic the horse encountered, the wide trip he had or the bad ride he received. Beyer puts his figure alongside other handicapping information.
“A lot of other elements of racing I couldn't quantify with the confidence that I can make speed figures based on final times. So I didn't want to throw other elements into the mix that might dilute the potency of the speed figures,” he said. “If a horse gets a figure of 90 but he had a very tough trip or was eight wide, I'd say he's probably better than that 90.”
Not only that, and this is something not all figure makers do, the Beyer team will change a speed figure if they spot something odd.
A perfect example occurred a year ago in the FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita, won by Bolt d'Oro. Initially, the Beyer Speed Figure came back a 113, which would've made the winner's time the fastest for a 2-year-old in a quarter century. Beyer became suspicious when looking at the horses behind Bolt d'Oro.
“The third horse had broken his maiden in slow time at Los Alamitos and would wind up earning a figure that would win any other 2-year-old stakes; he would have won the Champagne Stakes with that number. I said, this can't be.”
Beyer adjusted Bolt d'Oro's figure significantly — to 100 — and waited for the next-out races of the FrontRunner field.
“And the subsequent results of the performances of these horses indicated that my skepticism was right, that Bolt d'Oro was not the best 2-year-old in the past 25 years,” said Beyer.
The Beyer team did eventually bump Bolt d'Oro's FrontRunner number up to 103 but was criticized for changing it so drastically in the first place, when on the same card at the same distance, the 3-year-old filly Paradise Woods received a 105 for running a slower time.
“As much as I believe in my methodology, and as sound as it has proved to be, you just can't be too rigid,” Beyer said. “When we see races or situations that are ambiguous or if we come up with a figure for a race where our reaction is that this just defies credibility, we may just assign a figure we think better reflects the ability of the horse. But more often In ambiguous cases, we will flag those races in our internal system. And when horses start running back from the race we'll review the day's figures again with the benefit of hindsight.”
Turf races, in particular, are a minefield for speed figure makers. While dirt races, especially sprints, generally have reliable pace scenarios that result in logical final times, turf races can be run in painfully slow fractions, and the final time is barely a reflection of a horse's true capability against the clock.
On Aug. 11 at Arlington Park, the 3-year-old Carrick won the Secretariat Stakes, 1 1/4 miles on the turf, in a final time of 2:01.04. Two races later, at the same distance, getting a similar trip, 4-year-old Robert Bruce won the Arlington Million in a time more than a second slower than Carrick. Still, Carrick was assigned a Beyer Speed Figure of 95, while Robert Bruce got a 102. The Beyer team felt justified for putting the older horse's time in context with the pace and level of the race.
“If we took every slow final time in a turf race at face value, people would look at the numbers and just say this is incomprehensible,” said Beyer. “I mean, you'd get stakes horses running figures of 50. So, we will make adjustments.”
Other figure makers drew a different conclusion in the above case, and we'll revisit it this week. For the record, in their next starts, the two horses faced each other on Sept. 29 in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Robert Bruce finished second while Carrick was sixth, beaten 27 1/2 lengths. Not to suggest that result indicates the difference in quality between the two horses but the horse with a seven-point Beyer figure advantage ran better next out, and to buoy the point about older horses, a 3-year-old hasn't won the Joe Hirsch in 14 years.
While turf performances and 2-year-old races present a conundrum for figure makers, the most common reason for adjusting numbers is a change in the track condition. That's why a Track Variant is so critical for this process and is universally used by figure makers. The Track Variant is designed to take into account the many factors that can affect a racetrack on a given day. They include but aren't limited to: rain, wind, sunlight, watering, harrowing and tractor tires. The goal isn't to know why a track condition changed; just that it did.
Where things get tricky is when a surface changes dramatically in the middle of a card. For example, if the Beyer figures for the last two races of the day come back higher than the team would expect for those two fields of horses, did both groups just happen to improve? Or did the track get faster late in the day?
“Either alternative is possible,” said Beyer. “So when a little time has passed we'll go back and look at how horses have performed in their subsequent starts which will usually give us the answer of whether the horses were legitimately improving or whether the track just got souped up at the end of the day.
“Our goal is to have horses earn numbers that reflect their real ability.”
Beyer's flexible approach is not without its critics, but he believes accepting inaccurate figures does a service to no one — certainly not handicappers but also the breeding industry, which in recent years has paid much more attention to speed numbers when it comes to promoting stallions.
“Fifteen years ago, you could hear people in racing say time is only important when you're in jail. I mean nobody believed in that. Now it seems almost everybody does. And with people making huge financial decisions and paying attention to the figures and with these high profile horses and races, we really want to be right.”
Beyer is used to criticism. He remembers the days when figure makers were scorned as crackpots. As we'll see this week, it's a different world now, and four decades after sharing his methods with the world, Beyer still finds satisfaction in how far the speed figure business has come.
“I was the guy who came to the track clutching a vinyl binder of pages of speed figures written in red flare pens and shielding them from everybody's gaze,” laughed Beyer.
“The fact that the industry has accepted them and that we've really become the widely recognized standard for measuring a horse's performance, that's really gratifying to me.”
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