Figuring Out FigsA primer on figures
By Ed DeRosa, Hello Race Fans Contributor
Figures are everywhere, so you might as well understand them.
That is, even if you decide that you do not want to use them in your process of assessing each horse’s chance to win a race, it is essential that you understand how they are likely to affect other people’s process in assessing each horse’s chance to win a race.
More premium figures (at least in terms of price if not prestige) exist, and these are so premium that they are called performance figures because rather than simply measure final time, they purport to measure the effort a horse exerted in each race. The most popular performance figures are Len Ragozin’s The Sheets and Jerry Brown’s Thorograph.
Horseplayers who use figures rely on the figure maker to calibrate the speed and/or performance of horses across different programs, surfaces, and distances.
A rose is a rose is a rose and a 90 Beyer Speed Figure going six furlongs on dirt at Belmont is as fast as a 90 Beyer Speed Figure going one mile on Polytrack at Arlington Park, which is as fast as a 90 Beyer Speed Figure going 1 1/4 miles on turf at Del Mar.
And just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, that 12 Ragozin figure that Future Superstar earned winning a maiden special weight race is a similar performance to the 12 Ragozin figure that Lifetime Claimer earned when third against non winners of two for a nickel.
Of course, a calibration device is only as good as the human who set it. You wouldn’t want a drunk (or someone who hasn’t had his V8) to set your level, and you wouldn’t want someone making your speed figures who doesn’t understand that six furlongs in 1:12 on pavement isn’t the same performance as six furlongs in 1:12 on soft turf going uphill.
To that end, what all figures have in common is the use of comparing par (average) times to final times with adjustments made based on various factors such as changes in weather, surface, and gate placement to arrive at a preliminary figure. The BRIS figures are mostly automated, while Beyer Speed Figures rely on human input and judgment calls.
The par time helps the figure makers compare times against different variables starting with class. Daily Racing Form publishes the par Beyer Speed Figure for most classes, and such pars are based on years of raw time data. Based on an entire day of results, figure makers determine whether it’s the horse or the track that’s fast in an entry level allowance race for older males going a mile in 1:33.
If each race on the main track on a particular day was one length faster than par, then the preliminary figure for each winner would likely be one length slower than the raw time would have suggested.
Key words there are “winner” and “length,” since most figures rely on the winner’s time and then adjust the also ran’s figures based on beaten lengths. Electronic tracking systems such as Trakus are making this part of the process a more exact science, but it is still another inexact variable that distorts the accuracy of the final figure. To combat this, performance figure makers such as Ragozin’s The Sheets time more than just the winner in most races.
Making your own speed figures used to be a tremendous edge and using other people’s figures before Beyer’s were printed in the Form used to be an edge, too, but now everyone has them , and while figures are an important part of handicapping for most people, they’re no longer really an edge as much as they are a tool.
The great thing about figures is that they can be useful even if you don’t use them because so many other people do, so they can help identify the obvious favorite or favorites in a race. If something else besides a figure catches your eye about a horse and helps determine who you think will win the race, then you are in a position to get value from that opinion because figures affect the odds more than any other handicapping variable (except in maiden races when pedigree and connections matter more).
While some people are more than happy to compare figures and pick the fastest horse, most handicappers prefer to investigate how a horse earned each figure. Taking Rachel Alexandra’s Personal Ensign as an example, some would theorize that the Horse of the Year could have run faster than a 94 Beyer Speed Figure had she not dueled with Life At Ten throughout the first mile of the 1 1/4 miles race. Others would argue that she may have earned a 100+ Beyer Speed Figure if the race were shorter than 1 1/8 miles rather than at the American classic distance of 10 furlongs.
In a similar vein, turf (and to a lesser extent some synthetic) racing presents challenges to figure makers, because horses typically do not exert themselves until the final stages of the race. Undefeated two-time champion Zenyatta has shown this somewhat on synthetic, winning Grade 1 races with Beyer Speed Figures ranging from 94 to 110.
The speed and performance figures referenced here do not take into account the pace of the race in determining a final number, though many people who use the figures do so when asking the aforementioned question, “How did the horse earn that figure?” Both Daily Racing Form and BRIS offer pace figures with some of their past performance products, and similar to their speed figures, the DRF product, pioneered by Randy Moss, has a much more human element to it than do the BRIS numbers.
Horses are not machines and the humans who developed the various figures are not super computers capable of an infallible assessment of data. Still, the figures do show that horses run different races based on a seemingly infinite number of variables. Sorting all that information out and landing on the winner is what makes Thoroughbred racing so exciting to participants, and “the figs” should very much be a part of that process.