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Why I Like Speed Figures

I fell in love with the concept of speed figures when I was 13 years old. My parents made the mistake of buying me a copy of Andy Beyer’s “Picking Winners” after my first several visits to Belmont and it was a match made in heaven. Suddenly it all made sense! As someone who’s mathematically-oriented I loved the idea of constructing a number to equate performances on different days, at different distances, at different tracks. A quantifiable way of measuring each performance – just how fast a horse ran – rather than trying to quantify abstract concepts like class or “he ran well.” Here was a way to bring all of these variables into line as if all horses ran in the exact same race or at least at the same place, on the same day, at the same distance, on a track whose speed and surface that never changed and was never affected by weather and elements. And the foundation behind the construction of the numbers was logical too – that a fifth of a second is more significant at shorter distances than at longer distances. A runner who misses the 1 Mile world record by 1 second is still among the best ever while a runner who misses the 100 meter world record by 1 second is ordinary.

At 14 I began making my own speed figures. After that I was introduced to Thorograph & Ragozin sheets. I no longer have the time or energy to make my own figures – and certainly I consider a multitude of handicapping variables from pace to trips to trainers – but speed handicapping has always stayed with me as the core foundation of my handicapping approach. Speed figures are where racing makes sense to me. Speed figures measure how fast a horse ran and at the end of the day isn’t that what we’re all trying to figure out? Certainly there are a number of factors that influence the outcome of a race and this is why the correct application of speed figures involves a lot more than simply betting the fastest last number or fastest average last 3 numbers etc, but at the end of day no horse ever won a race while crossing the finish line in a slower time than his competitors (save for DQ’s of course).

Speed figures have an additional value for me as well. Aside from their practical application in day-to-day handicapping, they allow you to put top performances in some sort of historical or relative context. When a 3 year old wins its debut by 7 lengths, speed figures tell us if we’re looking at a horse that belongs on the Derby trail. When a horse wins by a large margin at a second tier track, the clock tells us if that horse has what it takes to compete with the elite in New York or California. Speed figures also provide the only semi-reliable means for comparing horses from different generations. Every generation has a set of champions, but speed figures are the most reliable method of figuring out just how good each one was and who was better than who. Are they failsafe and absolute? Of course not. But generally, a horse who typically runs 122-119-118-120 is superior to a horse who routinely runs in the 108-110 range.

There are some who detest such an approach but there’s no question that speed figures give us a more reliable assessment of a horse’s ability level than anything else – particularly assessments drawn by nothing more than the untrained human eye or things like wins and class that are either vague or utterly irrelevant without being put into some type of context. Those who are offended by such measurements generally aren’t very analytical or are simply clueless as to what a speed figure actually represents, how it’s calculated, and how it should be properly applied. We mock what we don’t understand. Or, in the words of Neil Peart (obligatory Rush reference – I’ve been slacking in that department thus far): Quick to judge, quick to anger, slow to understand / ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand…

So what’s the point to all of this beyond writing a basic 3rd grade essay on “Why I like speed figures?” Well first, I will using speed figures and sheet #’s quite frequently in this blog to measure and assess performances as well as to put them into historical and seasonal context. Second, I have several entries planned around the discussing certain top horses and just how fast they really were. Additionally, because of my love for numbers I have accumulated a pretty extensive collection of Beyer Speed Figures from top horses over the years – including many that were published either in the Racing Times or even before then when his figures were available through Bloodstock Research. It should make for some really interesting conversation in the coming days and weeks – particularly with the Breeders’ Cup coming around. With the exception of a few early turf races, I actually have an archive of the winning Beyer Speed Figure for every Breeders’ Cup race ever run…which I’ll publish soon.

A good place to begin though is probably with Rachel Alexandra and how she compares to other top 3 year old fillies over the years. I’ll work on that next…

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Is Rachel Alexandra the Best Filly Ever? | Farewell To Kings linked to this post on October 25, 2009

    […] where does that leave us?  In my last post I talked about how I loved speed figures because they provide us with some means of comparing […]

  2. Historical Breeders' Cup Beyers | linked to this post on November 1, 2009

    […] a previous post I talked about Why I Like Speed Figures.  There I mentioned that I had a near-complete archive of Beyer Speed Figures for all […]



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