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Interpreting speed figures, Part 1: Chrome, The Preakness, and Andy Beyer

There were all kinds of responses to California Chrome's sub par speed figure in the Derby, the question remains what does it mean?
There were all kinds of responses to California Chrome's sub par speed figure in the Derby, the question remains what does it mean?
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Going into the week before the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome was the consensus favorite. On paper his numbers stood out just as impressively as he was visually, where he was last seen in California, gliding over the sunbaked track. Was he the overwhelming favorite because his last couple of victories were against top quality horses, or was it the margin of victory he beat those quality fields by? Yes, he did do all of that, but no because the dominant factor in assessing his races were that his speed figures stood out over the Derby field.

After winning the Derby a funny thing happened to California Chrome and his mystique though. It wasn't anything physical, in fact it was something that he would never be aware of even if he lived to be a thousand years old. What was this terrible thing? It was his speed figure for the Derby. Yes his speed figure for the Derby came back a 97, which was unusually low for such a high quality race.

What does this mean for the Preakness which will be run this Saturday? Probably nothing. He could simply go right back to running the 107's he ran in California, or it could have been a premonition that he may need a rest.

What is fascinating is the importance that racing fans put on speed figures and how they came to be. Before horses were give a 'figure' handicappers poured through past performances looking for class drops, workout patterns, trainer changes, angles that are still very relevant today. However the past performances as a whole lacked a certain cohesion to anchor all these other angles down. This lack of a cohesion lead to many creative ways in which people have tried to break the game down to an equation. This was done all in an effort to simply ‘crack the code’, of horse racing.

Baseball, another game that is heavily reliant on statistics successfully held off a full-blown revolution of baseball theory for many years. Although statistics were prevalent, they did not have the dramatic effect on the game until the proven success of ‘Sabermetrics’. Founded by Bill James, sabermetrics revolutionized the way the game was played. Out of nowhere meat and potato stats like home runs and RBI’s gave way to OBP (on base percentage) and the all important WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched). Virtually overnight it went from a game decided by seasons pros that orchestrated a game from the ‘gut’, to a quantifiable game that was decided from reams of data entered by nerdy statisticians, who couldn’t hit a ball off a tee.

Years ago horse racing had undergone a similar statistical revolution. That revolution was in configuring speed figures. Back in the 70’s horse racing enjoyed resurgence, thanks in part to three Triple Crown winners in the decade. Anyway, this resurgence led new younger fans to become attracted to the game.

The old school bettors maintained a strict adherence to class, and a horses record in regards to how they bet. More weight was put on a trainer’s reputation, and the breeding of a horse than who on paper was actually the fastest horse. If a lower level horse came in from Suffock Downs to win at Saratoga, it was mainly seen as an aberration than anything else.

Younger generation players were coming into the game with a sense of deciphering computer data, and statistics. At the time in the 70’s computers and data were not nearly what they are now, but nearly all of the pioneers of todays technology came of age in the 70’s and 80’s.

Some of the younger fans of horse racing saw in those outliers, less of an aberration and more of something there that could be quantifiable.

What both generations could agree on however was that, for the most part, final time meant little in regards to the big picture of who was the best horse in the race. There were clear cases of incredibly talented horses running brilliantly fast races; like all of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races. But for the most part, final times were not a clear-cut way of transposing a horse’s ability.

Consider events where the final time is more relevant, i.e. track and field or swimming, the contestants compete in their own lane, and if the race starts on a turn then proper distance is given so that everyone runs the exact distance. In horse racing the start of the race is not an even or fair start. The horses come out of the starting gate, and if that race starts on a turn then the outside horse loses all that ground. There is no lane to keeps one horse from bumping into another, or cutting another off.

If any of this seems unfair, lets go back to a baseball analogy; each stadium has its own configuration and personality. I don’t think there are any true fans that would want to see a uniform distance for home runs. The same goes for horse racing, where the challenge is to know the tracks well enough to understand if you’re getting a fair value on a horse.

Which meant if you were looking at a race at Saratoga, which featured horses from Belmont, Churchill, Gulfstream, and Keenland, and you relied on the final times of the races, you where simply back to betting on random chaos.

There are many reasons for this, some of which are more obvious than others. Each track has its own configuration, some tracks have a shorter run up to the

first turn, some have very wide turns; in both cases a horses’ running style can be affected by those variables. The actual dirt or turf can vary, some have a very deep tiring feel, while other are raked down and very fast.

To add to this problem, tracks themselves can change dramatically because of weather conditions. Take for example an overnight rain event caused the track to play heavier and deeper in the earlier races, only to dry out and speed up later. In this example a 6-furlong overnight stakes race run at 1:30 PM, has the same time as a maiden-claiming race run at 5:30? If there were heavy rains that morning, followed by a clear sunny day, the answer seems obvious. But how to quantify that answer is specifically what the problem was.

The dilemma here is also what figure makers saw as the solution.

This lead to what is known as speed figures. In short, speed figures are the quantized result of interpreting how fast the race actually was run. There are a number of sources out there to choose from some of them are Brisnet, Equibase, the ‘sheetsetc, this list goes on and on. Today there are some people who make their own numbers.

The guy who really popularized figures is Andy Beyer. Andy is known for creating his Beyer Speed Figures, perhaps the most popular, and divisive model used today. Andy Beyer; a Harvard alum, is a known D.C. columnist, and reporter who benefited from his talent for writing almost as much as his talent for making speed figures to ensure the popularity of them. In 1975 he released his seminal book ‘Picking Winners’ to let the betting public in on his secrets to cashing in on his legendary scores. Andy’s figures were proved worthy enough that they were bought and are used today by the Daily Racing Form.

Nevertheless they remain almost as controversial today as ever. Just go on the comment section of the ‘Racing Form’ and read the comments regarding California Chrome’s 97 Beyer he got for winning the Derby.

In Part II, I will examiner how the controversy of speed figures revolve around how they are interpreted and how to use them with other handicapping methods to improve your game.

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