Speed Handicapping in the New Millennium

Twenty-seven years ago, at Gulfstream Park, handicapping author Andrew Beyer had a sad epiphany.

“I felt that I was at the very top of my game as a gambler. And I still couldn’t win,” Beyer wrote in “Beyer on Speed”.

“My lack of success was due not to bad luck or photo finishes or any of the other traumas that plague all horseplayers. My frustration was best demonstrated by some of the winners I picked — by horses like Memorable Skater.

“In his nine-race career, Memorable Skater had finished out of the money nine times against maiden competition,” Beyer continued. “Now he was running against winners, and any traditional handicapper would have dismissed him on those grounds alone. But his speed figures were competitive with those of his rivals, and, in his last start, he had been forced to race wide on a track with a strong rail-favoring bias. … When I went to the track that day, prepared to make a killing, I thought Memorable Skater embodied all of the handicapping skills I had spent a lifetime learning.

“The race went just as I expected. Memorable Skater popped out of the gate, angled to the rail, led all the way to win by six lengths — and paid $6.20.

“A pitiful $6.20,” Beyer lamented.

Of course, there is nothing exceptional about Beyer’s story — such is the case with all efficient markets. As more and more relevant information is introduced, the harder and harder it is to profit from that information. What is interesting about Beyer’s tale is that it occurred in 1990 — a full two years before his speed figures were made available to the public in the Daily Racing Form.

This implies that Beyer wasn’t the only one who had built a better mousetrap, i.e. produced a better measurement of speed than what existed at the time (which wasn’t much).

Still, the key to profiting in any speculative venture is typically not the tools at hand, but, rather, the way in which they are used. As profits on his top-speed figure horses receded like the hair on his head, Beyer (and others) found different ways to use his numbers. Heck, even the figures themselves changed.

One way that I still use speed figures is by looking for races with what I call “established form” — horses whose speed figures don’t vary much. The logic being that a speed advantage is likely to be more impactful in races lacking huge swings in form.

Take, for example, the first race at Churchill Downs on May 19 of this year.


If you look at my Speed Figure Report (above), which examines each horse’s past and present speed figures and rates the race based on the volatility of those figures, you’ll notice that there is very little variance in the numbers (it generally doesn’t matter what speed figures one chooses to use).

Hence, Secret Trick is singled out as a play, solely on the strength of her superior recent effort and the fact that her opponents are likely to record their typical numbers — which aren’t good enough to win.

Now, granted, I’m glossing over a lot of details here, like how the Par Speed Variance is computed and what the Speed Par Reliability Rating actually measures. But I’m doing this for a reason — in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. They are just my way of quantifying the data in a manner that is meaningful to me (and can be tested).

But the concept is simple: Look for top-figure horses in races without a lot of speed figure fluctuation.

Not surprisingly — I’m hardly going to use an example that lost now am I? — Secret Trick rallied to win this race over Lucy’s Revenge and Cheyenne Blues (who were tied with race favorite I Am Miss Brown for the second-best recent speed fig).

What was surprising was the $11.80 win mutuel. Give it 27 years…

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