Speed Figures and Variants:
Part I

Charles Carroll

Article Library




Track variants are values that are assigned to a particular race or set of races on the same track and the same day to indicate how much should be added or subtracted from the actual final time (for speed) or incremental times (for pace) for comparison with times achieved by other horses in other races.  To calculate the variant, the actual time of a race is compared to an expected normal (par) time for a similar class of horses on the same track.

I hate to talk about track variants.  Variants have achieved the status of religious mysteries in handicapping.  Everybody believes in them—hardly anyone understands them.  I hate to talk about them, because if you understand them they’re tedious.  But if you don’t, they’re holy.  To get to variants, I’ll also need to talk about where the art of speed handicapping is today, now that the Beyers are spoon-fed to the mob.

I could probably do a week at Club Med if I had $10 for every time someone has buttonholed me at a seminar or Expo, or called on the phone and opened the conversation with, “So—how do you handle variants?”

They seem to hate the answer I’ve developed to avoid long, unresolved debates:  I just shrug and say, “I don’t.”   Usually this does the trick and they shake their heads and walk off, although once in a while it starts a one-sided harangue on why I should.  If I can get a word in, I’ll ask, “How do you make yours?

When the smoke and mirrors clear, the answer usually is they don’t—they use the Beyer Figures, which they have some idea contains a built-in variant or, if they are making their own speed figures, they use the Daily Racing Form variant, or some other variant based upon someone else’s work.  All they know is they must use it.

Track variants can be extremely valuable—if they are local and immediate.  This almost has to mean:  if you make them yourself as part of an alternative approach to speed or pace handicapping, which you understand and master.

Since public odds are overwhelmingly based upon the published Beyer Speed Figures, one way to find an “edge” is to have a strong set of alternative speed figures of your own.  So that you know I’m not hyping my own figures here, let me add that a good approach to building strong, local, and immediate speed figures can be to simply make your own Beyers.

If you work on a few tracks of your choice, you can make better Beyers than “The Beyers”—if for no other reason than the simple fact that you must do research and you must understand them.  The published Beyers are not bad speed figures, but the great value of Beyer’s approach, when he first introduced it, was that it was do-it-yourself.

Andy Beyer’s first book, “Picking Winners,” probably ranks among the best How-To books of all time, regardless of topic.  It set a whole generation of handicappers to work with pencils and calculators, before PCs existed, to make their own “Figs.”

Then, like now, there was great incentive to make alternative figures—in this case using the new “Beyer method.”   Beyer offered an alternative to the DRF speed figures and variants, which were not held in much esteem.

You don’t have to run exhaustive statistical tests to conclude that the published Beyers appear to be far better than their predecessors—just observe that the odds on speed have noticeably dropped.  Unfortunately, improved information is not the value bettor’s friend, and when you make your own figures, the last thing you want are better published figures.

One of the most naive quotes I’ve seen on this subject from an executive in the racing industry was recounted in Thoroughbred Times, about a year ago.  Essentially, he wanted to provide simpler and more widely understandable information to the public so that there would be more winners.

Hello?  Aside from whether replacing data columns with baby talk would actually accomplish that goal or not—this is a pari-mutuel, zero-sum sport.  To have “more winners” everyone has to either win less (smaller amounts)—or somebody has to lose more.  (I seriously doubt he was suggesting that the tracks add to the mutual pools.)  However, from the slightly cynical angle below, the evolving flood of superficial information is starting to look a lot better.

Handicapping the information available to the crowd can occasionally be almost as important to finding an edge as handicapping the horses themselves.  Have you ever handicapped a race and exposed “Trixie’s Notion” as the false favorite—and understood exactly who the true contenders were—and then picked up the Form and found a banner headline, “Trixie’s Notion Takes On The Pretenders At Belmont”?  Don’t you wish you could get a headline like that every time you nail a race?

As mentioned in one of the earlier columns about odds, the crowd “piling on” a false favorite is one of the surest ways to a legitimate overlay.  A few days ago (September 16th) TVG’s commentator spoke prophetic words before a Grade II event:  “You’ve got to go with the only Grade I winner in the race.”  I’ve been meaning to send her a Thank You note.  The underlying prophecy was that the false favorite Grade I winner would be pounded by the public, and the real winner would pay $45+.

Unfortunately, you don’t get headlines or televised commentary on your money race every day, but what you do get at some tracks, at least, are those wonderful little “At A Glance,” or “Closer Look” comments, and other additions to information to help “simplify” the crowd’s selections.

Usually, these comments simply recount what is already there, in the more cryptic speed lines—which presumably they feel the public can’t read.  For example:  “Wasn’t seen after a layoff in May, then returned to do poorly.”

No kidding?  Now, there’s some hot information.  The guys writing these comments have to say something about a hundred or more horses a day, with some relevance to the race at hand, so you can’t blame them for being a little jaded.  But when one of these overworked fellows slips up and states an actual opinion—which differs from yours—the last thing to do is be worried by it, or “fold.”  Instead, try looking for value.

As a handicapper, you may be skimming thirty or forty races a day looking for opportunities.  Bad public information can sometimes be a clue that interests me enough to work a race I might not otherwise, and hang with it until the final moments to see how the odds are going to be affected.

When the bad public information involves speed or times, then the advantage of making your own alternative speed (or pace) figures really steps out.  Over the next several weeks, we’ll cover several of these topics as we sneak up on variants.


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