JC / Railbird

The Speed Circle

Speed, Disrupted

Commenting on yesterday’s post, Sid Fernando provides some interesting historical context on how modern American and European racing came to diverge. Sid also asked of the post, “Was that a shot at DRF, or did I misread?” Well, I suppose it could be taken that way. Let me explain my thinking …

In the decades since speed figures emerged as a powerful handicapping tool, and in particular, in the 20 years that Beyer Speed Figures have been widely available, the numbers have affected not only how players bet, but how horses are purchased, raced, and marketed for breeding. They’ve revolutionized the game, at every level; the numbers work, they’ve illuminated. “Speed figures are the way, the truth, and the light,” wrote Andrew Beyer on page 119 of “Winning Horseplayers,” and for a generation, with some tweaks and refinements, that’s been so. A reinforcing circle has been created based on that truth, flowing from handicapper to horseman to breeder and around again.

Synthetic surfaces threatened to disrupt that circle — at least, temporarily.

Speed figures have been most valid on dirt surfaces, and synthetics, with their profiles commonly referred to as turf-like, upended what’s become conventional thinking: Speed always rules. Even when it’s cheap. Especially when it’s lone. Is it any wonder that when notoriously speed-biased Keeneland became the first prestige track to install a synthetic, what had been muted grumbling about the surfaces turned into howls of outrage? And that after the CHRB mandated synthetics, transforming an entire circuit virtually overnight, outrage turned to panic? Irrational rants against synthetics intensified from handicappers’ forums to the pages of major racing publications. The proven truth of speed — and the millions of dollars in handle and data and information services spending it guided — was in danger. A whole (racing) worldview was under siege by synthetics and their misguided supporters.

(Thank goodness Santa Anita is returning to old fashioned, always reliable dirt. The Pro-Poly-Tapeta-Track barbarians may be turned back yet.)

It may not have been fair for me to single out DRF, not when complaints have come from every corner — except that DRF’s columnists and handicappers have been, for the most part, stubbornly opposed to synthetics, and that as racing paper’s of record, the standard for past performances, DRF is uniquely influential. Beyer Speed Figures, exclusive to DRF, are a major differentiator for the paper, and speed handicapping informs its perspective and products from EasyForm to deluxe Formulator PPs. There’s really no getting around that, or what I’m about to suggest now by what I’ve argued above — that the synthetics antipathy found in its columns, blogs, and handicapping analysis is driven to some extent by a sense of threat to a long-standing way of playing the horses — and to selling papers.

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Many thanks for the comments and Twitter discussion re: another post this week, “No Allowances,” which spurred more questions for research about how and what juvenile races are carded. More on the subject next week, after checking out a few condition books, in time for Breeders’ Cup handicapping.

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10:00 AM Addendum: Related to the above, here’s an example of the speed circle from Pete Denk at the Thoroughbred Times today, regarding Quality Road’s future career as a stud and the multiple track records he’s set:

Although Gulfstream’s reconfigured dirt surface is only six years old — it was redone before the 2005 meeting — the authenticity of Quality Road’s performance was confirmed by speed figures. Thoro-Graph, the New York-based company that computes performance figures, gave Quality Road a –7 1/2 for his Donn win, the fastest figure Thoro-Graph ever has given out, according to Thoro-Graph’s Jerry Brown.