Using Speed Figures to Identify Standout Contenders

January 18th, 2018

Using Speed Figures in Handicapping

A couple weeks ago, I described how using the “all” button in exactas can lead to impressive payoffs if you have a strong opinion of one horse in a given race.

One of the examples I used was California Chrome in the 2014 Kentucky Derby—on paper, he looked like a clear standout, turning the usually competitive Derby into a battle for second place. But why was California Chrome such a clear choice to win? That’s where speed figures come into play.

Although almost all horse races are timed to record how fast the winning horse ran, comparing the times is a difficult task since the speed of a given racing surface can vary from track to track and from day to day. A mile in 1:34.50 is very fast at Aqueduct, but the same time at nearby Belmont Park is barely worth a second glance. Speed figures attempt to take these variances into account and clarify which times are fast and which are slow.

While there are many different kinds of speed figures, Beyer and BRIS speed figures are among the most common and popular. With both Beyer and BRIS speed figures, a triple-digit number is a sign of a very good performance, and a horse that has earned multiple triple-digit numbers is likely to be a very good horse. With this in mind, even the briefest glance at the speed figures earned by the horses in the 2014 Kentucky Derby stamped California Chrome as the horse to beat.

To put it simply, California Chrome’s speed figures towered over the field. On the Beyer scale, he had earned consecutive figures of 108 and 107, making him the only horse in the race to have cracked the triple-digit mark twice. Furthermore, his figures were substantially higher than those of his rivals—the next-best figure earned by any horse in the field was a 104 from Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Wicked Strong. California Chrome’s BRIS speed figures were equally notable—he had posted three numbers of 101 or higher, including a 106 in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

On paper, the speed figures suggested that California Chrome was by far the best horse in the Derby field and would be very difficult to beat if he ran his best race. Therefore, fans of speed figures weren't surprised to see the colt seize a huge lead in the homestretch of the Derby and cruise to an easy 1 ¾-length triumph as the 5-2 favorite, somewhat generous odds for a horse with such an obvious advantage.