JC / Railbird

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.



Excellent read. Such heresy and I cannot believe no one has picked an argument with you. However, I am only going to agree with you. Speed, it seems, is king with the quarter horse trainers seeming to have set a ‘fashion trend’ that leads to even more speed. And then there is the one eighth two year old in training sales which still take my breath away. How many tens of thousands of dollars is a tick worth at that distance? And how many races are there for one eighth horses?

I have Preston Burch’s book “Training Thoroughbred Horses” on my shelves and I have to think that if he came back today his first words would be “What the !?”

Posted by Graeme Beaton on October 21, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

[Edit by JC — For a lively discussion, be sure to visit the thread on Sid Fernando’s site.]

[…] replied with this new post, from today, in which she says: There’s really no getting around that, or what I’m about to […]

Posted by Jessica Chapel addresses DRF’s clear anti-synthetic stance « Sid Fernando + Observations on October 21, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

After the 2007 Bluegrass Stakes and Andy Beyer’s column in reaction to it in which he called it illegitamate I wrote a letter to the editor of DRF pretty much saying what you’ve said here. It’s only gotten worse, that is the synthetic bashing (Zenyatta being the poster child), by what I have called the Industrial Speed Figure Complex in the intervening years.

Posted by kyle on October 22, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

Thanks for your comment, Graeme. No one picked a fight here, but one kicked up elsewhere. It’s interesting, how thorough the shift in perspective, and how little that gets discussed.

Thanks for mentioning Beyer’s Bluegrass column, Kyle. That, along with Crist’s Dubai World piece, is what I had mind as I was thinking about the outrage towards synthetics.

Posted by Jessica on October 23, 2010 @ 8:32 am

Yeah, Christ’s World Cup piece where he called it a crapshoot was pretty disgraceful and I thought a disservice to the game. The implication was that handicapping only boils down to speed figures and when they don’t hold up the result is completely unpredictable. Meanwhile the top three finishers had fitness edges and the benefit of local preparation. but Christ completely dismissed those factors.

Posted by kyle on October 23, 2010 @ 11:04 am

Have you looked at DRF’s circulation numbers lately?

With average sales of 16,372 copies a day, world-wide, for the year ending October 5, 2010, this is a company that can’t even sell itself.

Who cares what anybody in there thinks, says, or writes?

The court of public opinion will soon render DRF a further insignificant part of racing’s bygone era.

Next time you analyze DRF, why don’t you look up sales figures from last year or last decade and observe the difference between then and now?

Posted by Murdoch on October 23, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

Murdoch, thanks for commenting. We differ in that I don’t agree the DRF is irrelevant. That’s like saying the New York Times is irrelevant. What appears in its pages matters to the industry at large, if not to individuals.

Posted by Jessica on October 24, 2010 @ 6:04 am

[…] I was going to try to avoid linking to Sid Fernando yet again for a while, but weirdly, our thoughts seem to be running along the same lines these days. In a comment on his post addressing something I wrote here days before, he replied to another commenter with the observation, “more often than not the old guard was once the new guard,” and I think, yes, that’s something on which I’ve been recently meditating, trying to poke holes in my own argument re: speed figures, synthetic surfaces, and the Daily Racing Form. […]

Posted by Jessica Chapel / Railbird v2 - The Old Guard on October 24, 2010 @ 7:31 am

Beyers # are not a part of my handicapping am oldschool

Posted by dale mckay on October 29, 2010 @ 6:17 pm