Are Stakes Horses Getting Slower?
“Where have those 120 Beyer horses gone?” Jerardi asks. “I miss them. You should, too.”
According to Jerardi, top horses are slower now than they were in years past — and the Beyer numbers prove it.
“The 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic got a 104 Beyer Speed Figure,” Jerardi related. “Those horses are supposed to represent the best of the best and that is the best the winner, Drosselmeyer, could do.”
Jerardi continued: “I went back 20 years to look at the fastest horses a generation ago and how the best figures have evolved through the years.
“What I found out was the Beyer Figures by the top stakes horses were relatively similar from 1992 to 2005. And then it all started to slow down. With a few exceptions that don't last long (Uncle Mo), the best horses just keep getting slower on the Beyer scale.”
Jerardi then points to several (predictable) causes for this erosion of speed:
1) Durability. Jerardi notes that the foal crop was 40,000 in 1990 and around 25,000 this year.
2) Drugs — both legal and illegal.
3) Synthetic surfaces.
Regarding the latter, Jerardi points out that his studies consisted of dirt numbers only and, thus, he wasn’t sure what effect — if any — synthetic or all-weather surfaces had on the Beyer regression; he just observed that the figs began falling when faux dirt became more commonplace.
“I have questions,” Jerardi said. “Perhaps, somebody has answers.”
Somebody does, Mr. Jerardi… me.
First of all, let us be clear as to what is being observed here: It is the decline of Beyer speed figures, period. Contrary to what some may believe, this is not the same thing as a decline in speed.
Look, it is no surprise to me that Beyer figures have withered since the advent of synthetic surfaces — Jerardi was right to have listed that as a contributing factor. But the impact of these surfaces has more to do with the pace of the race than with the speed of the racehorses themselves.
Since 2006, when Jerardi says the Beyer decline among top stakes horses began in earnest, the early speed ration (ESR) of the BC Classic winner averaged a +5 — about 7 lengths inferior to the -2 figure the Classic champion averaged from 1992-2005.
Of course, slow paces (high ESRs) are a hallmark of turf and all-weather surfaces; and the slower a race is early, the more likely it is that the final time will also be slower… and the speed figure lower.
Looking at the chart above, one will notice that the two highest ESRs listed — the highest in BC Classic history — were recorded on synthetic surfaces and both produced inferior Beyer and Brisnet speed figures.
However, the other, more insidious reason that Beyer numbers are waning in America’s top races is due to the nature of the figures themselves.
Although Andrew Beyer first formulated his numbers based on parallel time charts and by refining a process that “speed handicappers” had been using for years, it didn’t take long for him to start tinkering with his defining achievement.
In “Beyer on Speed,” the speed figure guru wrote:
“Most speed handicappers use par times or par figures as the basis of their calculations; it’s easy to program a computer to make figures this way. But it is much more accurate to create a track variant by comparing today’s time with the way the actual horses in that race should have run. This is called the projection method, and we use it to calculate every Beyer Speed Figure which appears in the Daily Racing Form.”
Read that again. For in those three sentences lies the real reason that Beyer numbers are going south. Think about it: Does it really make sense that Zenyatta, who was undefeated on all-weather surfaces, ran faster on dirt when she lost to Blame in the 2010 Classic than she did when she won the same race over a synthetic (Pro Ride) surface in ’09?
Of course not.
What’s more, as I have pointed out in the past (see “The Truth About Speed”), some Beyer numbers have defied the laws of physics. This is not a knock against Beyer — I like the guy and think he is simply trying to come up with the best figures possible … but they are not speed figures… not anymore.
Instead, they have morphed into a mixture of speed and performance, i.e. a more volatile version of the Timeform ratings so popular in the UK.
Thus, using Beyer figures to assess the speed of racehorses is akin to basing one’s opinion of male sex appeal on People magazine’s annual “Sexiest Man Alive” edition.
Remember, Nick Nolte won the title in 1992, casting the entire process into doubt.
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