01/15/2009 8:22PM

Don't Blame the Figs


The validity of Beyer Speed Figures has been questioned twice in the past week, and I'm bucking my usual inclination just to roll my eyes and button my lip. I'm all for skepticism and dissent, and as constant readers know, I like to challenge and explore the ins and outs of some figs myself, if only to illustrate the art as well as science that making them requires. Still, when the fundamentals of speed figures are misunderstood and misconstrued in a public forum, an attempt to set the record straight seems in order.

Addingmachine Last week in the New York Post, the former racing columnist Ray Kerrison took his annual shot at the Beyers in a column headlined "Speed Numbers Don't Add Up." I don't particularly disagree with his ultimate conclusion, that the whole of a horse's accomplishments exceeds the sum of its Beyers. I don't know anyone who would quarrel with that, which is why I found his argument that the figures might mislead Eclipse voters into supporting Commentator over Curlin to be a disingenuous assault on a straw man: Curlin will receive virtually every vote, as well he should.

The way that he got to that conclusion, however, was through an uninformed attack on the whole idea of speed figures, which are nothing but an attempt to modify raw times with an analysis of the speed of the racetrack that day:

"Here's the startling, irrefutable proof: Commentator ran the slowest Whitney in 42 years. Running over a track labeled fast, the chestnut ran the nine furlongs in 1.50.1. You have to go back to 1966 to find a slower Whitney, when Staunchness, under Ernie Cardone, won it in 1.50.2.

Question: How could Commentator run the slowest Whitney in nearly half a century and have it hailed as the single greatest speed performance of 2008? This is bizarre. Put another way: How could Midnight Lute run the fastest Breeders' Cup Sprint in 25 years and earn just 112, while Commentator runs like a snail in the Whitney and gets a 120? The more you examine it, the crazier it gets....If Commentator had run over a plowed field, perhaps a case could be made for his Whitney 120. But the track at Saratoga that day, according to Daily Racing Form, was fast."

What Kerrison finds to be irrefutable proof that the numbers are "wrong" is precisely what makes them necessary: The fact that different racing surfaces, and the same racing surfaces on different days, can play intrinsically faster or slower and thus produce raw times that can not be reliably compared.

As most horseplayers know, when a track is labelled "fast" in DRF's or anyone else's past performances, it does not necessarily mean that the track was especially quick that day -- only that it was not sufficiently compromised by weather to be labelled good, muddy, sloppy or frozen. It is entirely possible for the slowest Whitney in 42 years to earn a higher speed figure than the fastest BC Sprint if the Saratoga track is slow and the Santa Anita track very fast, and that was exactly the case on those two days.

The larger point is that speed figures are not overall performance figures meant to provide a comprehensive assessment of a racehorse's quality and accomplishment, which is why Curlin will outpoll Commentator by at least a 50 to 1 ratio.

Commentator, in a vacuum, may be the fastest racehorse we've seen in a decade. He has earned four Beyers of 119 or higher. He also is unsound and inconsistent, and needs things to set up perfectly for him to deliver one of those freakishly fast performances. He is a cool and admirable horse for other reasons, such as coming back from multiple injuries, and winning a Grade 1 race as a 7-year-old. No one is trying to make him an undeserving champion on the strength of his raw brilliance, but it would be crazy not to acknowledge that brilliance.

A more interesting and thoughtful challenge to the Beyers was posted yesterday at the excellent blog Kennedy's Corridor, where the question was confined to the much-debated issue of how slow the figures were in most of last year's major races for 3-year-old males. The author proposes that the old-style "speed ratings/track variant" figures we still publish in DRF present a kinder and perhaps more accurate assessment of those races. He illustrates how the SR/TV's were in line with historical norms while the Beyers tailed off.

Two problems here. First, the SR/TV is a crude tool, employing a mechanical system of calculating a variant that ignores the distances of races and the quality of racing on a given card. (We continue to publish them primarily as a courtesy to a generation of players that grew up on them.) Second, the method is particularly shaky at tracks that have been entirely resurfaced in recent years -- places like Keeneland and Santa Anita, where synthetic surfaces were installed and then were significantly quickened up for last year's spring meetings, which offered numerous Derby preps. For example, Santa Anita times were being compared only to the previous year's Pro-Ride races for purposes of the "speed rating,"

There's also a very solid case to be made from every other point of reference -- raw times, any of the many sets of independently-produced speed figures, the naked eye and common sense -- that last year's 3-year-old males were simply a slow and spotty bunch and deserved the low figures they repeatedly received, especially once you got beyond Big Brown. Even if you think Big Brown was in the same league as Curlin, the 2007 3-year-old champ, can you really argue that the next-best American-based colts -- Colonel John, Denis of Cork, Tale of Ekati -- were anywhere near as good as Street Sense, Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday a year earlier?

That doesn't mean they aren't all nice horses or that others in the class of 2008 can't come forward to run fast races in the future. And we're still all learning exactly how to gauge synthetic-track performances where final times may be blurred by different race and pace dynamics. But I've seen nothing to suggest that speed-figure methodology has anything to do with the extremely high likelihood that the best 3-year-olds of 2007 were a better -- and faster -- bunch than the best of 2008.

Dennis Tiernan More than 1 year ago
How can we have faith in speed figures when racetracks like Retama Park don't care if they publish correct times. There were 5 races last weekend where the fractions and final times were suspicious. Jan 22 Races 3,4,6 and Jan 23 Races 8,10 On Jan 23rd, Race 6 was ALWN1X(S) 1 Mile Turf for FM4+ Final time 136.29, Same conditioned race two races later in Race 8, Final Time 139.15. I hand timed both races from the gate and both races crossed the wire in about the same time, give or take a 1/5th. Good Luck to Mr Beyer and his associates in getting the figs correct for those two races.
King More than 1 year ago
The beyer figs for grass imo are not worth paying much attention to...
Waquoit More than 1 year ago
I think it's funny that Kerrison is knocking Speed Figs at the same time he is the last known proponent of dosage.
mike More than 1 year ago
There is an inherent problem with the projection methodology used by ALL major fig makers. In the first instance, most will tell you that tracks can change speeds due to wind, moisture content etc.That does happen but by how much is completely unknown. It is too convenient for fig makers to use nothing more than creative license to "back into" figs they feel a horse runs, i.e the horses norm. Horses are pretty inconsistent but yet get figures in a tight range,in some cases nothing more than the fig makers opinion in those cases.If you ever studied the figs given by certain "sheet" fig makers, you would laugh if you follow the game closely. BSF has one glaring flaw,imo, and that is their unwillingness to give a normally fast horse a "slow" winning figure. It's like taboo to think that a real fast horse could have an off day and still win performing slower than normal.
greg More than 1 year ago
I have been using the Form since the late 60's and only use th SR/TV to handicap, it works today, it worked 20 years ago, and will work in 20 more years, the Beyers mean nothing to me and probably never will, thank you for continuing with the SR/TV numbers
Steve in NC More than 1 year ago
Steve, it would be impolitic for you to say these things, but I will: Whether dealing with racing or political issues, Kerrison's work is characterized by purposeful distortions to create controversy. He's the quintessential Post columnist. As for speed figure issues, I know you don't think it makes sense to give horses extra credit for going wide, but on Ragozin, Big Brown got an incredibly good Derby figure. Just please don't work out an arrangement with Ragozin to start putting those numbers in the Form!
KYL Syndicate More than 1 year ago
All, Please watch Saturday's Aqueduct Race 2... Besides the economic reasons why handle is down, the decisions or lack thereof by stewards is mind-boggling and give more reasons why some are quitting this because of crookedness... My apologies if I saw the race differently, but the 5 got hit by the whip from the 9, and yet no objection or stewards inquiry.
Jim More than 1 year ago
Steve, Im in 100% agreement that the old SR/TV are essentially useless since the advent of Normalized Speed Figures. However, there still is a big hole in the racing form. Beyer figures are the modern jet engine compared to the SR's steam engine. But what about the modern evolution of the TV? Any point estimate, such as a Speed Figure, is weakened unless it is accompanied by some measure of variance (or confidence). I've got a lot of ideas on the matter, but I don't want to dominate your blog. Let's just say that a fast track with typical maintenance and no headwind or extreme temperatures would get a lower Speed Figure Variance than a sloppy track on a freezing day with a 25 mph headwind. A low Speed Figure Variance combined with a high Speed Figure would carry a lot more weight than a high Speed Figure Variance combined with a high Speed Figure. I know that's a mouthful, but the bottom line is: "Do I have any confidence in the manner in which a given Beyer Figure was earned?" Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it's no. This is important information, and it is not getting to the bettor.
RichP More than 1 year ago
My Opinion There is a lot of science to the paralell time charts that the Beyer figures are based on. The are valid mathematical equations that caclualte the way an athlete fatigues as he travels a distance of ground. These can be used to validate Beyer's charts. Track varaints on the other hand, are more of an art form. Agressive track maintenance during a racing programs as happened during the WHitney makes it very difficult to come up with a variant. I make my own Beyer figures for NY, not because I think the Beyer group does a bad job, but knowing that there are days like the Whitney Day where the variant is a guess at best, gves me an edge. Knowing that track speed was changing from race to race is valuable info when your handicapping. I give less weight to figures from those kind of odd days and try to rate horses off othe races. As other people have noted speed figures can't stand alone anymore. The top figure horse no longer shows a profit. I was fortunate enough to read Beyer's first book right after it ws published, and cashed in on having good speed figures when few had them. It's stiil possible to get good prices with figures, ut it's more a case of knowing when the top figure horse isn't likely to win. Since that's most likely the favorite. My advice to anyone who uses speed figures or wants to understand them better, is to make figures for a couple of months. It's a very difficult task as there are days where the numbers are very difficult to interpet. Knowing when figures work well and when they don't is a big part of being a successful figure handicapper. One place where they don't work well is in the grass. Also some types of synthetic tracks. I think that is true for the same reason. That final time is affected drastically by the pace of the race. Admittedly pace is a factor in most racing but on turf and on some synthetic tracks a fast closing fractions is so important the early part of the race is run so slow that it affects the final time much more so than in a dirt race. SInce Beyer figures are based on final time there not as predictive. There are many ways to be a successful handicapper. I've used spped figures and not used them. Both approaches can work. Beacuse you can pick winners w/o speed figures doen't mean they don't work.
Silver Charm More than 1 year ago
Big Brown was good for about four months and about 4th best when compared to the 2007 crew. Nice horse, nice story, big heart not much else to say about him that would be overstating what he accomplished.