• When Speed Figures Matter... And When They Don't

    POSTED Jul 11, 2013

    Andrew Beyer
    One thing my 20+ years of racetrack experience has taught me is that good handicappers adapt to changes in the game.

    Initially, upon having read Steve Davidowitz’s book “Betting Thoroughbreds,” I cared only about my winning percentage. Davidowitz often talked about his 50 percent success rate in his book and I wanted to join that exclusive club.

    Of course, I eventually realized that doing so meant sacrificing price, which became untenable when casual bettors (like grandma and her winner-picking hatpin) were displaced by more experienced players — players who, just like me, had read Davidowitz’s book… and Andrew Beyer’s books… and Jim Quinn’s books…

    It was at this point that I began experimenting with angles.

    Armed with literature from American Turf Monthly’s former editor Ward Clever, a.k.a. Ray Taulbot, I started insisting that the horses I bet meet certain criteria that I determined — via a sample size of 20 — to be relevant.

    A few of those angles were good; most were not. Worse, I discovered that angles, especially those that sought “price horses” were maddeningly inconsistent — I wanted steady profits, not the occasional windfall score.

    Mr. Simon meet Mr. Scott.

    It seemed like a match made in heaven. When my step-dad bought me “Investing at the Racetrack” by William L. Scott one Christmas, it renewed my belief in Santa Claus. Here it was, I thought: the Arc of the Covenant, Fountain of Youth and Philosopher’s Stone all rolled into one, neat 287-page package.

    In his book, Scott detailed his unique way of assessing equine talent via “Ability Ratings,” which were comprised from fractional times and various modifiers.

    I was hooked. Not so much by Scott’s overall method — that didn’t work for me (nor, I suspect, did it work for Scott very long, judging by his subsequent books) — but by the concept. In fact, I credit Scott for putting me on the path that led to the development of my own pace figures.

    And it was my pace figures that literally changed my approach to the game. I soon realized that the numbers were so powerful that they could crystallize and, better still, quantify what before had been only nebulous theories and ideas.

    Take, for example, a recent study I did on speed figures.

    Now, I don’t think I’m going to shock anybody when I say that the effectiveness of speed figures as a predictive/profitable betting tool varies based on the type of race one is analyzing. For many years I have heard handicappers grouse about speed figures in grass races or races run over the various synthetic surfaces we lovingly — or not so lovingly — call “all-weather.”

    In fact, realizing there was a problem with his numbers on these man-made surfaces, Andrew Beyer and associates altered their approach to synthetic tracks in 2009.

    “… When we finally had a great deal of data about figures on synthetic tracks, we found a subtle flaw in our calculations that we never could have anticipated,” Beyer told Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report in November of 2010. “The top-class races at a track were producing figures lower than they had on dirt; at the same time, the bottom classes (such as maiden-claiming fillies) were producing higher figures.  This was not logical, and the same phenomenon was happening at every track.”
    What changes Beyer and his team made one can only guess, but Beyer hit at the heart of the problem later in his discussion with Paulick.

    “… Synthetic tracks pose other problems that we rarely encounter on the dirt. The early pace on synthetics is sometimes so slow that the horses can’t accelerate fast enough at the end to run the fastest final time of which they are capable.  If a horse is capable of running a mile in 1:36, but the first six furlongs of a race have been run in 1:14, he won’t get to the wire in 1:36.”
    And therein lies the problem: Often, races on turf or all-weather surfaces come down to a single burst of acceleration — usually in the stretch — rather than sustained speed throughout the course of the race. Beyer and crew likely “fixed” this problem by assigning greater values to each fifth of a second and adjusting for abnormally slow paces — but it didn’t work.

    The fact is pace, at least as I define it via my early speed rations (ESRs), which measure early energy disbursement, still has a huge effect on the viability of speed figures.

    To prove this, let’s look at some data.

    We’ll start by examining the stats of horses that earned the best last-race Brisnet speed figure (ties included):
    Number: 13,815
    Winners: 3,890
    Win Rate: 28.2%
    Return: $22,835.40
    ROI: -17.35%
    About what one would expect. But, now, let’s add in the pace component, beginning with slow-paced races (events that have an average ESR of +5 or greater on my Pace Profile Report):
    Number: 218
    Winners: 49
    Win Rate: 22.5%
    Return: $332.50
    ROI: -23.74%
    As you can see, the numbers are substantially worse than those obtained above, validating (if one can trust such a small sample, which is open to debate) the notion that speed figures are less predictive/profitable in slow-paced races.

    However, to fully endorse the theory that pace makes the case (sorry, I couldn’t resist) for or against speed-figure handicapping, we’ll have to see the opposite phenomenon in faster-paced races.

    We do.

    In races with an average ESR of -10 or less, we get the following:
    Number: 468
    Winners: 158
    Win Rate: 33.8%
    Return: $917.30
    ROI: -2.00%
    Surprised? If you’re like me, the answer is both “yes” and “no.” I am startled that the statistics on fast-paced races are so kind to a speed-oriented approach, but I am not surprised that such an approach is ineffective in slow-paced affairs.

    The lesson here for speed handicappers is to be less dogmatic in races that figure to feature a slow pace. Change your approach, adapt to the conditions… your wallet will thank you.

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