An Introduction to Speed Figures

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Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing

There’s an old racetrack adage that “time only matters when you’re in jail.”

Clearly, anyone who espouses that philosophy does not appreciate the value of speed figures.

Speed figures are one of the most valuable, yet misunderstood, tools for a handicapper.

While some might view them as complex, they are actually quite logical and remove much of the mystery and work from comparing times at different distances by creating a universal rating system that works equally well with horses in Grade 1 stakes or in $5,000 claiming races.

At their very essence, speed figures can reveal whether a horse that ran seven furlongs in 1:25 at Gulfstream Park on March 1 ran faster than a horse who covered six furlongs in 1:12 at Aqueduct on March 2.

How they work is by assigning a base value or figure for a certain speed at one particular distance. Let’s say it’s an 84 for a horse who runs six furlongs in 1:12. What happens next is that the horse’s final time is taken into consideration for longer distances. In this case, considering that the horse should cover another furlong in 13 seconds, the same 84 would equate to seven furlongs in 1:25 and a mile in 1:38. Yet if the horse was clocked at 1:24 4/5, the figure would improve to 86, while it might drop to 82 if the final time was 1:25 1/5 or an 80 for 1:25 2/5.

Therefore what services that compile speed figures do is create scales of times for each distance along the those guidelines which tells them that six furlongs in 1:12 is a little better than seven furlongs in 1:25 2/5 and much better than a mile in 1:40.

The next part in the process is that pars are developed for each class level. For instance, horses in a first-level allowance race are expected to earn a speed figure of a 94 – regardless of distance - while a $20,000 claiming race might have a par of 84.

To create the final figures, each speed figure is compared with the pars to determine how fast the track was that day for sprinters and two-turns. Let’s say there were three sprint races on the card and the speed figures were faster than par by 3, 4 and 5 points. Those totals are averaged and the track is deemed to be 4 points faster than normal. That means a horse that received a raw figure of an 84 for running six furlongs in 1:12 would actually receive an 80.

This way, by scanning each horse’s speed figure, a handicapper can quickly assess which horse is the fastest. If the horse in post one recorded a speed figure of 84 last time and the horse in post two registered a 78, the horse on the rail turned in a faster performance. It’s that simple.

Of course, the fastest horse does not always win the race, but it’s an excellent starting point in handicapping.

You’ll find that speed figure providers such as Daily Racing Form, Equibase, Brisnet, Ragzoin and Thoro-graph have different scales and each company’s figures cannot be compared with the others. Daily Racing Form, for example, might have given American Pharoah a speed figure of 120 for winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic while Ragozin’s figure could have been a -2.

The key is to find a service that you find to be reliable and within your wagering budget, and let them do work for you. Let them assess the speed of each horse for you so you can focus on other factors such as the distance of the race or whether the horse is facing easier or tougher competition.

Again, the process might seem complex, but the end result is a rather simple way to assess the relative speed of each horse. If you can understand that an 85 is a bigger and faster number than the other horses’ 78, 81, 65, 73, 80 and 69, then you are well on your way to becoming a speed handicapper.

Welcome to the club, folks!

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