When you hear people talk about speed figures in horse betting they are likely talking about the Beyer Speed Figure. There are many different figures, but the Beyer is the most widely used and commonly available. The ratings were developed by Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer in the 1970s, and have been available in the Daily Racing Form for more than 20 years. They are numbers manually assigned to every horse in every race run at most tracks in North America. The number takes into account the speed of the race and the bias of the track on that day. Despite the name, it’s important for handicappers to remember that this is a measure of the horse’s performance in a race, not just his speed in that race. Basically, it tells you if a horse is fast enough to compete with his opponents.
There is no fixed scale for the Beyer ratings. As a general rule, though, a rating of 100 or higher is an indication of an elite horse with strong speed capabilities. The highest speed figure assigned was in 1987 when Groovy posted 132 and 133 in consecutive races. No horse has gone over 130 since. Secretariat’s crushing Belmont victory came in 1973 before the Beyer figures were developed, but it’s estimated that he would have earned a 139 on that day.
Strengths of speed ratings
Comparing horses from different tracks – One of the big challenges of handicapping the Derby is determining how horses from different areas stack up. The best horses from California, New York, Kentucky and the southeast come together at Churchill Downs. They have been racing primarily against horses in their own region, so it can be very tough to figure out the true strength of horses from different areas. The Beyer rating can give you a sense of how the regions stack up and what the level of competitiveness will be.
Track progress race to race – By looking at how horses progress in their ratings from race to race you can get a sense of whether they are improving, if they are consistent, how dependent they are on ideal conditions, and so on. It can be a quick way to spot trends that can be helpful in evaluating a horse when comes to determining if they may win, place or show.
Simplicity – Whenever a whole lot of information can be processed into one simple, easy to understand number it is very powerful. These are effective numbers that remain useful after decades of availability, and understanding them will make you a better handicapper.
Creating value – People can get lazy looking at speed figures and rely on what they say without thought. There are many ways in which the numbers can be deceptive, though. One of the best ways to find value is to find a number in the last or second to last race that doesn’t accurately represent what the capibilities of the horse. If the horse had a legitimate excuse for the bad performance – track conditions that didn’t suit him, an abnormal pace scenario, a stumble at the start, and so on – then the horse may be poised to perform much better in the Derby than their numbers suggest. That could lead to an inflated price and nice value for the smart horse bettor.
Not a complete picture – Some handicappers can rely too heavily on the Beyer numbers. They are merely a starting point for analysis, not a shortcut. To really unleash the full power of the numbers you have to do more work, and that’s beyond what most people are willing to do. That leads to reliance on the numbers in a way that doesn’t provide maximum value. To fully unleash the power of the ratings you need to look at several factors. For example, what distance were the past numbers achieved at. If a horse has only posted high numbers at sprint distances then they aren’t likely to do the same at the classic distance. You also need to look at how the pace played out in past races, and whether that helped the horse achieve an abnormally high number or handicapped him and led to a lower number. If the pace isn’t likely to be similar in the Derby then the horse could perform differently. Did the condition of the track help or hurt?
Widely accessible – At times there is a situation where the story told by the speed ratings is so blatantly obvious that anyone could see it – like if one horse had posted several numbers over 100 while none of the other horses had one. Since the numbers are so easily available, and written about so much by the media, they can have a big impact on the odds in a race, and can destroy value in those situations for the horse bettor.