Speed figures are quite possibly the most popular tool used by handicappers to identify which horse they believe can win a race today. Since their introduction, speed figures have remained remarkably consistent in their ability to quantify how fast a horse can run. There are certain pitfalls to using them, however, and the wise horseracing bettor must learn how to use them effectively.

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The evolution of speed figures

In the early 1970’s, a man named Andrew Beyer changed the way people bet on horses by developing the speed figure. Beyer, a columnist for the Washington Post and a respected handicapper, believed that bettors could select more winners if they were able to put a number on how fast a horse ran in a given race. By doing that, the speed of horses could be compared against each other more simply.

The formula Beyer used to construct his speed figures was initially fairly simple, but it has since evolved into a proprietary complex system that is marketed exclusively by the Daily Racing Form. If you have ever purchased a Daily Racing Form to handicap the races, you’ve probably noticed the Beyer Speed Figure in the past performance of each horse:

Horse Speed Figures

As a general rule, horses can be evaluated according to the following scale:

  • 115+ – Best horses in the country
  • 100 – Good allowance or low grade stakes horses
  • 90 – Typical $25,000 claiming race
  • 80 – Typical $10,000 claiming race
  • 57 – Bottom level $2,500 claimers at lesser tracks

Since Andy Beyer introduced his speed figures in the 1970’s, many other horseracing interests have also created their own version. Equibase is the most famous example. The important thing to remember here is that whichever speed figure you choose to use doesn’t really matter—as long as you use it consistently. In other words, do not compare the Beyer Speed Figure of one horse with the Equibase Speed Figure of another. Use the same figures when handicapping a race.

What do the speed figures mean?

At their simplest form, speed figures present a number which expresses how fast a horse ran today, adjusted for track variance or bias. Racetracks can play differently from day to day, and even from hour to hour! Sometimes tracks become very fast and produce blazing times. Sometimes tracks can become very slow and turn “dead”, producing times that can be a few seconds slower than average.

Also, races are ran at different distances. Speed figures allow you to compare the speed of a horse racing at five furlongs with the speed of a horse racing at a mile. If a handicapper were to attempt to determine which horse ran faster in his last race without the benefit of speed figures, he would need to concern himself with a lot of variables. Speed figures distill all of those variables into a single number that is designed to present a complete picture of how fast a horse really is.

The flaws of speed figures

As reliable as they are, speed figures cannot be used as a standalone handicapping tool. The information gleaned from speed figures must be combined with other information to get a complete picture. Think of handicapping like a puzzle. With every piece you put in, the picture gets clearer. The puzzle you are trying to put together is which horse will win today’s race.

One of the biggest flaws of speed figures is that they do not particularly consider the trip a horse had in a given race. For example, a horse that is uncontested on the lead may earn a higher speed figure because he was unchallenged throughout. Similarly, a horse that has difficulty in a race may earn a lower figure that will appear to suggest he ran slowly when the fact is that he was bothered by other horses the entire time. Learning how to assess trips should also be a part of your handicapping education.

Speed figures for races held on the turf, or grass, are not always as reliable as speed figures for races on the dirt. The reason for this is that the style of turf racing tends to be very different from the style of dirt racing. In dirt races, horses typically go fast early and slow down as the race progresses. On the turf, horses typically run very slow in the early stages and unleash all of their speed late. Because of this, the algorithm for making turf speed figures is somewhat unreliable. Use them with a grain of salt.

Finally, speed figures are of no help with first time starters, or horses that are racing today for the first time. Because they have yet to race, these horses have not earned a speed figure. It is not uncommon to see two or three races on each race card that contains a full field of first time starters. In these races, you’ll need other information to help you solve the handicapping puzzle.