Using Speed Figures to Bet on Horse Racing

Horse Racing speed figures have been in the arsenal of professional handicappers for decades, but it is Andrew Beyer who made them available to the general public.

Andrew Beyer literally wrote the book on the subject of Speed Figures in his 1975 book Picking Winners and continued exploring the subject in subsequent publications.

In 1992 the Daily Racing Form started publishing these figures in the horses past performances and this revolution has changed the game in the USA and Canada forever

Of course, other horse racing data publisher like Equibase have their own version of speed figures and, across the pond in Great Britain, the Racing Form has a version based on the particularities of turf racing in the British Isles.

The method to create these figures vary somewhat and because there is some human interpretation needed for their creation, there can be little variations for a same horse between two publications. The goal of any speed figure is the same however: comparing the race times of different horses that ran on different race tracks at different times.

We concentrate here on speed figures in American horse racing and will focus on the most famous versions of all, the Beyer Speed Figure published in the Daily Racing Form.

Why do we need Speed Figures and why can’t we just use the finish time?

In the USA and Canada, the race distances are relatively standard across all racetracks.

Horses compete in sprint races of between 5 and 7 furlongs (a furlong equals 200 yards) or route races, often 1 mile to maximum 1.5 miles.

One would, therefore, assume that we could simply compare the times of two horses that ran the same distance and we can be sure of which ran the fastest. After all, if we know that two horses ran 1 mile and one did it in 2:10 minutes and the other 2:15, basic math and physics tell us that the first horse finished the race faster…

If they ran in the same race and were opponents, that’s true. We know that the first horse ran better and faster and won over the other. Case closed.

But what if the first horse ran the mile when it was a bright sunny summer day in California and the other horse ran when it was a muddy winter day in New York? It would not be fair to simply compare the times. The second horse might actually be much better, it was only facing tougher conditions.

This is basically why we need speed figures.

We need to take the final time of a horse race and make adjustments to account for differences in conditions.

Speed Figures, horse racing distance, and racetracks

The need for standardized speed figures is even more acute when we want to compare horses that ran at different distances.

If you need to sprint 100 yards, you can go faster in terms of MPH than if you run 200 yards. In the latter case you need more endurance, therefore it is normal that your average speed is greater if the race distance is shorter.

The same goes for the place where you run.

Again, an exaggerated example: if you run 100 meters in a straight line you will probably go faster than 100 meters where you need to twist and turn along the course. Not all horse racing tracks are created equal. Between the configuration of the turns, starting and finish line and the composition of the soil, it might be a faster course or slower course.

The horse racing speed figure helps with all the issues above by making adjustments to the race time and putting it in a single number that can be compared across horses, races, and dates.

How are speed figures created?

Basically, the person creating the figure will try to estimate the speed performance of the horse in a given race by comparing that race to the average (the par).

The speed figure analyst will take the average time (par time) for that exact racetrack, in almost perfect conditions (no rain, no mud) and for races of the same category and class. With this par time in hand, the analyst can tell if today’s race was slower or faster than usual.

The analyst will do this analysis for every race of the day and every time he will compare today’s race time with the average for the race class. If all or most of the races were slower than average today, it will tell the analyst that the racetrack conditions were a bit off and that probably these horses would have run faster on a normal day. The track will have a slower “variant”.

Based on that knowledge, the speed figure analyst can adjust the racing time of each horse to take into account today’s race track variant.

But of course, the goal of speed figures is also to compare horses that ran on different racetracks and different distances. We could not do that if the figure was still using minutes and seconds like standard time.

The analyst, therefore, needs to transform the minutes and seconds into a number on a scale which can be compared to similar numbers.

The Beyer speed figure scale, for instance, is for instance centered on the average time of a standard claiming race.

A claiming race is an open race that can be found almost everywhere in America and where the horses are all for sale for a given price. A horse put for sale for 20 000 in California must be of approximatively equal value and quality as a horse put for sale for the same price in New York otherwise the free market would just jump all over that to exploit the difference. This makes it the most comparable type of races in America across state lines because we assume that horses sold at the same price in different parts of the country should run approximatively the same way.

Going back to speed figures, the horses’ times today will be adjusted for today’s variant, compared to the average for the default category of claiming races and put on a similar scale for every horse at every track for every race.

This way the bettor can look at a single figure without needing to make further adjustments.

The speed figure format will be the same regardless of the type of race the horse has run and where he ran it: a 100 speed figure is objectively a better performance than a 80 in another race, regardless of racetrack or distance or class.

Great, but what do I do with the speed figure now?

Good news and bad news.

Good news: speed figures are incredibly useful and should be a very important part of your betting arsenal.

Bad news, it is not a silver bullet…

Back in the day, the speed figures were not published in newspapers and only the savviest handicappers knew of them and used them to bet. They needed to create the figures themselves which is a painstaking endeavor, or they had to purchase them from specialists for small fortunes.

The price and effort were probably worth it though because it could reveal horses that ran incredible performances but that were somewhat hidden to the general public…

Nowadays, everyone who bets on horse racing has access to the data and it, therefore, can’t be used to uncover miraculous horses.

You can however still use it intelligently for a variety of betting angles.

How to bet based on recent speed figures

First and foremost, you can use the speed figure to disqualify some horses from the race and find who the real contenders are.

In most races, a few horses are the likely contenders and many horses are probably outmatched from the get-go. Using the speed figures, you can find the few horses that appear to be a notch above the competition in terms of speed.

You should find the horses who have recently (last 5 races) come close or even ran better than the par for today’s race. If you don’t have the par information, find the horse with the best speed figure last time out and the horses who in their most recent 5 races ran the same, close (2-3 points less) or even a better speed figure. The winner today is probably amongst them as they have shown the most speed recently

Of course, it sounds logical to favor the horse with the biggest speed figure in the last race. This horse was objectively the fastest in his last race compared with his competition today so there is a good chance that he might be faster today again. This is sound logic and if other indicators are all green (being fit for the distance and racecourse and class, normal rest) it might be a very good bet. The problem is that the other bettors will have seen the same speed figure so don’t bet blindly on this horse. The value might not be there, and it might even be a bad bet…

The speed figures are available to everyone so horses with recent large figures tend to be overbet. The speed figures can, therefore, be used to uncover good betting opportunities through advanced horse racing handicapping techniques.

Advanced plays with speed figures

Horse racing betting is done in pari-mutuel. This means that you need not be cleverer than the bookmaker or the casino. You need to be cleverer (or lucky!) than the general public.

It is, therefore, a good idea to use horse racing speed figures in a slightly different way than the other people who bet on the race.

Most players will look for the last figures or the lifetime best figures and use that to assess the quality of the horse. But everyone has a bad day or a lucky break once in a while, even horses…

For this reason, I try to find horses with speed figures that might tell another story or set traps for the other players.

A simple way to take advantage of the narrow focus of the betting public on speed figures is to try to find horses with excusable bad performances. If a horse ran a poor speed figure last time, see if he might have had some excuse. Maybe it was an unfamiliar distance or jockey, or the weather and racetrack quality was unusually bad. If the horse is coming back to familiar grounds or distance especially, he might be back to better figures at an interesting betting price.

Another way to exploit the popularity of speed figures is to find bounce-back horses.

In horse racing, there is a belief that horses run in form cycle. The horses will gradually run improving races as their physical state improves and they build muscles. At some point, they will start to run poorly for a bit as they run out of steam and start a cycle again.

If a horse is running improving figures in his last 2 races, he might improve another notch today. If he ran a very poor race last time, after relatively competitive figures for that class in the past, it is likely to improve today and bounce back into form.

If he ran his best lifetime figure last time after a series of escalating figures in his last 5, I would advise caution unless he is a very young horse. Those improving performances mean that he might be nearing the end of his form cycle…

When the pace of the race affects the speed figures

Lastly but most importantly in my book, try to put the speed figure of horses in perspective with the likely pace of the race.

Another article goes into details about the notion of pace in horse racing and how incredibly important it is to betting with success. A short summary of pace handicapping: a horse speed figure might be improved or made worse not by the quality of the horse but by the way the race unfolds.

Pace handicapping is a bit more advanced, so a lot of casual bettors don’t pay much attention to it. It is however quite important and at some racetracks with big track biases, the pace of the race is almost all that matters to determine a winner…

Succinctly summarized, horses running on dirt always start the race fast and gradually slow down as they tire. The horses that go the fastest take the lead and the inside track, the others are left in the dust and will need to overtake the leaders which in some cases is quite difficult.

Most racetracks in the USA favor horses that start fast and the overall racing business tend to favor this type of horses for business reasons (it’s a whole other story…). This means that in some cases, you will have a horse that is by far the fastest in the early stages of the race. With this easy lead, the horse will be able to cruise, save his energy and win the race with a fast time because he could control the pace to his liking. In such a scenario where a horse has an easy wire-to-wire race, he is likely to have a great speed figure. He might not be able to repeat it if there will be some pressure this time around though…

On the other hand, if a horse is in a heated race with an opponent in the early stages, it is likely to tire a lot in the stretch and “abandon pursuit” when it is overtaken by come-from-behind horses. In this case, his final time, and therefore his speed figure, will be slow but in a future race that is likely to be easier on him in terms of pace, he might clock in a much better figure…

The pace angle requires work and interpretation, but it will reveal speed figures that are likely inflated by the circumstances and on the other hand show some betting opportunities on horses whose quality might be a bit hidden by the tough conditions of their recent races…

Putting it all together, the power of speed figures

The publication of the speed figures in racing newspapers was a revolution and today you cannot bet successfully without knowing that crucial piece of data.

But as with every other piece of information about horse racing, you need to put the figure in context and cannot blindly rely on it to find winners.

Use the speed figures to filter out horses that have no realistic chances and use the speed figures to simplify the decision-making process.

But the key to betting successfully with the speed figures is to go the extra mile and read between the lines…

With speed figures, it is not really about the number printed on the page, it is about the reason why the number is as it is.

The question is whether you can assume that the next figure will be the same or better and whether the other horses in today’s race are likely to impact the figure?

If you can combine the information about speed figures with the other key elements such as knowledge of pace handicapping, class handicapping and trainer and jockey tendencies, you will have all the tools to win horse racing bets.

The satisfaction in finding the right way to combine these elements is what makes horse racing betting such an exciting gambling opportunity.