Speed And Variants: Part II
Just A Matter Of Time

Charles Carroll

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There’s nothing more basic to making speed or pace figures than the accuracy of the times used to make them.  When I was working on the book, “Handicapping Speed,” I did something I had never done before, and maybe no one had done systematically from a handicapping standpoint:  I traced the handling of time and speed from the gates out on the track, through the entire timing system, into the photo finish booth, onto the timing slips, into the hands of the typists and information officers, to the point where it was passed on by the tracks to (at that time) the Daily Racing Form.

I found where every step occurred in the time/speed process and hung out with the people who managed it.  I didn’t just interview them and ask questions; I stuck around until I was part of the furniture and learned the routine.  I spent so much time with clockers, starters, assistant starters, flagmen, and photo-finish operators, that most of the time I smelled like either horse sweat or a chemistry set.

By doing this, I found a few flies in the ointment, a few junctures in the process where errors could creep in, a few less-than-interested low-level employees but, I’m pleased to report, never a dishonest man or woman.  In a business where money rides on omissions and commissions by dozens of people in a fairly loosely knit process, that’s quite amazing.  I’m sure that intentional irregularities have occurred and can at any time, but in my experience of spending more time with some of these people than their spouses over a year, I saw errors happen, but never an intentional act that would affect us as handicappers.

In the speed book, I talked about sources of errors, and how one of the photo finish examples supplied to me for publication even had an observable error in how the negative had been laid under the thread used to superimpose a finish line onto the final print.  Since the times of each horse’s finish are read off the negative, here was a place where consistency under pressure is important, or else times could be misread.

In the last steps of processing the results before they leave the track, there is also the chance of typos going unnoticed when times and lengths are transferred from handwritten slips to printed sheets or computer files.  In spite of all of the different technologies and all the hands that the data passed through, the greatest potential for errors affecting speed and pace handicappers appeared to be the judgment calls that are made on lengths back of non-winners.

That appearance was because I was making a major assumption:  that once the times were recorded in seconds and hundredth of seconds—that was it.  From that point on, I imagined that perhaps a typo could creep in, but what else could go wrong?

Then one day last winter, a large envelope arrived from a friend and fellow handicapper.  In it, were printouts of race results from tracks around the country—in triplicate.  Times had been circled in red pen and there were notes and an irate letter asking why one of the three racing data suppliers was providing different times at the finish and points of call in virtually every race.  Since Equibase now provides all data, he asked, why was this one supplier wrong so often?

I had been using raw data files from all of the suppliers for some time and knew the raw numbers were essentially the same, but I had never happened to print out all three suppliers’ own representations of their data converted to fifths, and looked at them side-by-side.  Sure enough, there frequently was a difference of a fifth of a second between times at any given split or at the finish.  There was also no observable pattern to it—this one supplier that was “wrong” was not consistently fast or slow—the times seemed to differ at random.

Anyone who doesn’t deal with times and speeds in horseracing might shrug—a fifth-of-a-second isn’t much.  But a fifth-of-a-second is the fundamental unit of measure in thoroughbred racing, originally because it was the unit of time on the clocker’s analog stopwatch.  Fifths have continued as the unit of measure out of tradition—and the fact that they are very convenient.

They represent approximately “one length” in thoroughbred speed (which I went to great lengths to explain and correct in the speed book, but nevertheless), for eye-ball, seat-of-the-pants figuring, they are extremely convenient and I hope the convention never changes.  This is a major example of the types of information I talked about last week, where “improvements,” in this case going to hundredths of seconds in the paper printouts of our data (or the Form itself), would do no one any good.

So with this in mind, the idea that this data supplier was frequently and randomly off by a fifth of a unit-of-measure in either direction—fast or slow—was rather a shocking revelation.  Since I had raw data on hand from all three suppliers for the same races, it just took a few minutes to see what was going on—and it was a far bigger shock.  The one data supplier, who differed from the other two—Handicapper’s Daily—was right!

And—it was the only one that was right.  All other data suppliers were wrong in how the represented fifths.  I was stunned.

Every bet I had ever lost while entering data by hand from paper flashed before my eyes.

You may recognize the previous sentence as a type often used when someone is about to spring some kind of ironic twist—however, there is no ironic twist.  Those bets are still passing before my eyes.

In my own computer programs, since raw time data has been available, I have routinely used the same little algorithm I wrote at the very beginning.  It takes the raw time in hundredths and rounds it to the nearest fifthThis is not ingeniousHow else would any handicapper, interested in speed or pace, do it?  It never occurred to me to do it any other way. 

Apparently, the rest of the world does it differently.  As best I can tell, except for me, Eric Langjahr (the horse player who wrote the Handicapper’s Daily software), and no doubt some of you who are handicappers and who have written your own programs, spread sheets, etc. —the rest of the world doesn’t agree.

I talked about this situation briefly in my presentation at the Daily Racing Form “Expo 2000” last spring in Las Vegas.  I have not listened to the tape, but I think if you do, you’ll hear that I was almost apologetic—I’m not sure why.  You may also hear a comment from someone in the audience, whom I’m pretty sure was a Form employee, to the effect, “The Form has always said it rounds down.”

I hate to break the news, but what they do is not “rounding,” it is truncating.  They simply delete whatever fraction-of-a-second is leftover, back to the lower fifth of a second.

From the few brief comments from the Expo audience, I got the impression that some thought “rounding down” was OK, since it is consistently applied.  The practice itself may be consistent, but the result upon times displayed for the public is not.

What this means, in short, is this:  a horse wins a 6 furlong race in 69.99 seconds, and another horse wins a different race in 70.00 seconds.  The times are 0.01 seconds apart—one one-hundredth-of-a-second—far less than a heartbeat.  If you truncate the first decimal fraction of a second to the lower fifth of a second, it leaves 69.8, which shows up in print as 1:09:4.  The second time of 70 seconds flat doesn’t need to be truncated, so it would print as 1:10:0.  Two horses—not a nostril apart—are now a length apart on paper (or, about a length-and-a-third, by my figures).

The effect upon printed times in fifths-of-a-second is totally random.  There is no way a handicapper can tell by simply looking at the fifths, or manipulating them in any way, whether the raw data was truncated a lot (maximum of 0.19) or not at all.

You may have noticed that the Form has recently added the time in hundredths-of-a-second, along with fifths, in their charts and in the results displayed on the Web.  This may be their way of coming clean, but as you can see immediately by comparing a few times in the two formats, they have not changed from the method of truncating to the lower fifth.  They are not alone.

Some might argue that this inaccuracy has not hurt handicappers, again because it is “consistent.”  However, it is not consistent.  Horses randomly run times of 0.00, 0.01. 0.02, etc., up to the next fifth at 0.2.  If you are a pace handicapper, and one horse runs to the first call in 21.99 while another runs the same distance in 21.80, yet both are represented as “21:4” does this interest you?

Do you consider the performances represented by the actual times in the table below to be the same?  Does it interest you that a horse which ran two lengths off the pace of “45” may actually be a two lengths off a 45.19 or roughly a 45:3 rather than 45:2—more than a length’s difference—and that the splits can “accordion,” longer and shorter, randomly?

Printed Time





Actual Time 1





Actual Time 2





I can only speculate on why they came up with this truncating convention to begin with, or why they stick by it.  As long as they do, however, the best advice to speed and pace handicappers is: do not use the printed fifths times from any of the suppliers who truncate.

One little surprise of our Handicappers’ Poll was that even among Internet users who download racing information electronically, almost 20% download it and then crunch the numbers by hand.  Add to that untold thousands who buy the info already on paper, and this is a significant part of the handicapping world.  In spite of tongue-in-cheek cracks I’ve made in previous columns about bad information and odds, I don’t wish wrong information on anyone.

In case it’s not clear what’s going on here, the data in the background is exactly the same.  Equibase is the single source of raw times, which it provides in seconds, to two decimal places.  What happens to it after that is up to the suppliers.  Someone somewhere has written a few lines of computer code to convert from the format of “21.99” to “21:4.”

Until all of the suppliers begin to round in both directions to the nearest fifth—not truncate to the lower one—there is a considerable edge available right now for speed and pace handicappers who do.


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