Introduction to Speed
It's not how fast have they run; it's how fast can they run
Level: Beginner
By Ed DeRosa, Hello Race Fans Contributor

Thoroughbred racehorses compete today primarily as a gambling pursuit. Sure, the Turf tradition holds that the Sport of Kings was conceived to allow royals to stake their pride on the speed of their steeds, but with thousands of horses racing each month throughout the world, finances have replaced pride as the steam that powers this industry’s engine.

So what once was, “Who has the fastest horse?” is now “Who can win this race?”

Several dynamics related to that question make gambling on horse racing the greatest game ever conceived: There are often multiple correct answers, and while scientific research principles apply to the analysis of data leading up to a race, pure conjecture is involved when crafting not only selections but also wagering strategies related to those selections. You can be right in many regards but still wrong where it counts most: the pocketbook.

All that said, when I ask myself the question, “Who can win this race?” the question I most often go back to is, “Who is the fastest horse?” Then I begin asking myself what makes that particular horse fast, and whether those factors are present today. If there are variables present that a particular horse has not faced before, then I rely on other data from the horse’s pedigree, his connections, and his running style as it relates to any perceived track bias (favors closers, dead rail, etc.).

I call this the boomerang approach. My starting and ending points are the same question. If I throw my handicapping boomerang effectively, then it will start and end up in the same place, but it will, I hope, collect a lot of useful data along the way.

That data as it applies to a race’s variables (surface, distance, weight, conditions, etc.) is essential. Put another way, there is no Rosetta Stone for determining how fast a horse will run today. Sure, performance figures such as Ragozin Data and ThoroGraph are good (and accurate) for telling you how a horse has performed in the past, but they can only help you predict, not guarantee, today’s performance.

I like to deal in extremes to illustrate points, so consider this: A horse runs six furlongs on dirt in 1:08 on a day no other horse runs the same distance quicker than in 1:10. That same horse is running the next day going 1 1/2 miles on turf. Chances are that this horse is the fastest in the race… going six furlongs on dirt. But what of going twice as far on turf? Well, what if I told you he was undefeated on turf from five furlongs to two miles against Grade 1 competition, and that this was a classified allowance race featuring no stakes winners? Sounds good, right? Well, except for that whole pesky just having run yesterday thing. What do you do with that?

The Kentucky Derby is a less extreme but omnipresent example of the variable question because each horse in the race is stretching out to 1 1/4 miles for the first time. The advent of synthetic surfaces (and particularly big-money graded races on such surfaces) has added another wrinkle.

From a pure speed question standpoint, if you were to ask, “Who is the fastest horse in the 2011 Kentucky Derby?” the answers would probably skew toward either 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo or Santa Anita track record holder The Factor. Of course, many handicappers question their ability to win the Kentucky Derby, but absent the other, either (even after recent losses) would certainly be overwhelming favorites against this group of projected 2011 Derby starters if going a one-turn mile.

There are only right answers after the race, but unfortunately the racetrack makes you place your wagers beforehand.

In order of importance, the elements of a race I consider when assessing who can run fastest today are pace, surface (including weather), distance, and class. If a horse is trying a certain surface and/or distance for the first time, then I value nature over nurture. That is, I lean toward pedigree as a better indicator of speed than connections. This is in part because pedigree is more overlooked by the public and thus I feel I have an edge there.

I value pace the most because I feel it has the most likelihood of affecting a horse’s performance. Not to pick on poor The Factor, but his inability to even set the pace in the Arkansas Derby effectively reduced his chances of winning the race to nothing. J P’s Gusto’s trainer had said that he wanted his horse on the lead or running with The Factor—something that didn’t occur when they last faced each other in the Rebel Stakes, which The Factor won authoritatively (replay) (Chart provided by Brisnet.com).

Handicapping the Arkansas Derby (replay) (Chart provided by Brisnet.com) to be run as the Rebel was could easily have yielded The Factor as the fastest horse in the 1 1/8-miles race, but factoring J P’s Gusto on the lead would have yielded a different answer (or at least forced any handicapper to downgrade both horses’ chances).

Certain races are just made for speed handicappers, though, like the eighth race on April 16 at Santa Anita Park: six furlongs on the dirt for older males eligible for their second-level allowance conditions or in for a claiming price of $62,500.

This would be a sprint to the wire in every sense of the word, and #3 Italian Rules had shown that he ran his best races on dirt after beginning his career with 16 consecutive efforts on either turf or synthetic. He finished second in his first two dirt attempts and then won on the third try, but by most measures, any of those three efforts were faster than what his five opponents appeared capable of running in these conditions.

Italian Rules

As it turns out, Italian Rules needed every inch of the Santa Anita stretch to overhaul the favored pacesetter Kajiwara, but I don’t see this race as a closer wearing down a frontrunner; I see it as the faster horse getting to the wire first. The two fewer pounds the winner carried than the runner-up probably didn’t hurt either (replay) (Chart provided by Brisnet.com).

As an aside and a hat tip to Jessica’s Introduction to Class, this race also offers an important note about class: Italian Rules raced for a higher claiming price in this race, but the competition was actually inferior to his previous three races because this lot featured horses who still had allowance conditions, while Italian Rules’ previous races were against open claimers.

Still, Italian Rules wasn’t so much a class play as it was an understanding that if he were fast enough to beat horses better than the ones he faced that day, then he’s fast enough to beat the horses he’s facing today.

A prevailing theme I’ve preached in the past is to remember that your competition is not the racetrack but other bettors, and the vast majority of other bettors who handicap for speed do so using Beyer Speed Figures. This is not to say that they are not a useful tool because they are, but to effectively use them to handicap for value, you must be willing to be more creative in your approach, and sometimes being creative means being simple.

If the horse with the highest Beyer Speed Figure among a recent series of races (e.g. last race, last two races, last three races, all races within six months, etc.) is going off at generous odds, then that is far more intriguing than a horse who is always 2-3 BSF points higher than the rest of the field but is even money.

War Emblem had the best Beyer Speed Figure going into the 2002 Kentucky Derby, yet somehow paid $43 to win. Bellamy Road had speed figures that towered over the competition ahead of the 2005 Derby, and he was seventh at 2.60-to-1.

Some people handicap using only figures, and our post on Figuring out Figs is a discussion of the types of figures available and how their makers divine such numbers for thousands of races a month.

I definitely encourage (and put into practice) a more holistic approach, incorporating the variables listed above as well as some of the other topics discussed on this site. But understanding the figure-making process—even if it’s not anything you plan to do on your own—can go a long way to understanding speed.

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Charts and PPs provided by Brisnet

2 comments

  • Hello, I have a question regarding speed and pace. Are you encouraged to
    handicap only using one or the other or both? I’m trying really hard to use all factors as possible when handicapping. I’m still pretty new to handicapping but truly enjoy the challenge. Thanks in advance.

  • Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for stopping by! Handicapping is definitely an enjoyable challenge. I suspect that you could get three different answers to your question if you asked three different people. My suggestion is to keep experimenting to determine which angles you feel help you do your best ‘capping. Of all the ‘cappers I know, each of them has their combination of angles that they find most useful, which is not to say that it’s not good to branch out.

    If you haven’t seen our discussion post on the handicapping process, I suggest checking that out. We asked a handful of ‘cappers to share their process (including which angles they use and how they use them). This might help shed some additional light on the possibilities of using speed and pace.

    Best of luck!

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