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Friday, August 05, 2011

Daily Racing Form: Hersh: How speed figures evolved into a tool for insiders

Calumet farm burials be damned! A swift look at sabermetric use in the racing game.

But things have changed in racing, just as they have changed in other sports. The sabermetrics movement, defined by objective analysis, especially statistics, shunned the insider perspective in baseball and has altered the way the sport is run. In professional basketball, “stat geeks” use mathematical formulas in an attempt to assess a player’s contribution in more meaningful ways than a scoring average or a scout’s eye-test. Many teams have bought in, and most have advanced stats experts on payroll.

Over the years, a similar shift has occurred in racing. Class still counts, and horsemen still train horses, but speed figures have wormed their way into every nook of the racing world.

“I am shocked, delighted, and gratified at how they’ve expanded,” said Andy Beyer, whose Beyer Speed Figures, as much as anything, triggered racing’s figure revolution. “I think younger racing fans would scarcely believe how the importance of time – forget even the concept of speed figures ? is missed for such a long time in racing and by such a large segment of the racing population. When I started out in racing, if you look at any literature from the time, the orthodoxy in racing was that time did not matter.”

Repoz Posted: August 05, 2011 at 10:13 AM | 10 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, sabermetrics

Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. tfbg9 Posted: August 05, 2011 at 10:58 AM (#3893246)
They mention my boss! And my former boss!
   2. Bob Evans Posted: August 05, 2011 at 11:10 AM (#3893248)
Well, not everyone can say he worked for both Drosselmeyer and Upperline.
   3. Downtown Bookie Posted: August 05, 2011 at 12:41 PM (#3893269)
Over the years, a similar shift has occurred in racing. Class still counts, and horsemen still train horses, but speed figures have wormed their way into every nook of the racing world.


Speed figures are a large part of the information explosion in thoroughbred handicapping; but just one part (much like Runs Created is just one part of the history of baseball's sabermetric explosion) There is much, much more information in the hands of today's average horse player than in decades past. Indeed, it amazes me just how much data is in today's Past Performances compared to when I first started handicapping: speed figures, trainer stats, jockey stats, Tomlinson ratings, lifetime records at today's track, at today's distance, on various surfaces, etc., etc. Heck, even fractional times weren't published in the Past Performances back when I first started playing; but there they are today, to show you exactly how the horse progressed in each of his previous runs.

And yet, despite all this information now being placed in the hands of the betting public, the favorite (that is, the horse with the most money bet on it) still wins about a third of the time, the same rate as in decades past (i.e., before the information explosion). Make of that what you will.

DB
   4. Mike Webber Posted: August 05, 2011 at 01:08 PM (#3893280)
If this is the beginning of the BTF monthly horse racing thread, count me in as a loyal reader!
   5. BDC Posted: August 05, 2011 at 01:11 PM (#3893281)
despite all this information now being placed in the hands of the betting public, the favorite (that is, the horse with the most money bet on it) still wins about a third of the time, the same rate as in decades past (i.e., before the information explosion). Make of that what you will

My WAG would be that the phenomenon is to some extent an artifact of the parimutuel system, or rather human psychology in the face of parimutuel odds. Everybody gets better informed, but there will always be horses at longer odds that seem worth betting on. You see horses that clearly wouldn't stand a good chance of winning if every other entry in the field dropped dead, and yet the odds don't go up to a realistic 1,000-1.

Speed figures are essential; what I often find is that a given horse has very inconsistent speed figures in its past performances, really all over the map. I accept that the algorithms are probably pretty good, so what this represents is the extreme variability of individual racing performance. (At least in the races I attend, mainly cheap claiming races at a lower-tier track.) I look mostly at class and distance, and at the shape of a horse's attempts at given distances (e.g. if a horse showed a tendency to speed but faded at a mile, and is now running six furlongs, maybe that's a good sign). But I am a very casual $2 bettor, and I win just often enough to keep me going back to the track :)

To tie this back to baseball, I guess one thing that stands out about baseball is the 162-game season. Horses don't race 162 times in several lifetimes. On a given night, David Murphy is only slightly less likely to be the hero of the game with a homer and several RBI than Josh Hamilton; it's only over a fairly long haul that the difference becomes vivid.
   6. guelphdad Posted: August 05, 2011 at 02:43 PM (#3893333)
So these guys are watching the Kentucky Derby in their mother's basements?
   7. Downtown Bookie Posted: August 05, 2011 at 02:45 PM (#3893334)
To tie this back to baseball, I guess one thing that stands out about baseball is the 162-game season. Horses don't race 162 times in several lifetimes. On a given night, David Murphy is only slightly less likely to be the hero of the game with a homer and several RBI than Josh Hamilton; it's only over a fairly long haul that the difference becomes vivid.


Indeed, all the information regarding the individual horse in thoroughbred handicapping practically screams "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE." As just one example, one will often see a "horse for the course" label given to an entrant simply because he has a grand total of two wins at that specific track. I'll also just note here that another big change since I first got into the game is that the sample sizes have gotten much smaller; that is, today's thoroughbreds, like today's starting pitchers, perform a lot less frequently than they did in decades gone by.

Therefore, many horse players will place much greater weight on trainer stats and reputation (along with jockey stats and trainer/jockey combos) when handicapping a specific race, simply because there's much more of an established record to examine. For example, it's good to know that a horse in a specific race once won making a move similar to the one he's making today (say, for example, going from dirt to turf, or making his second start after a 45-180 day layoff); but it may be better for the player to be aware that the horse's trainer is (for example) 34-for-131 making that specific move, with an ROI of $1.97.

By the way, while we've mentioned several of the similarities between baseball and horse racing with regard to the data explosion, I feel it's important to point out one very key difference. Baseball's new statistical tools are used by fans at least as much (if not more) to examine baseball's past as well as to predict it's future; that is, OPS+, WAR, EqA, etc. are cited by fans at least as often in determining who's a worthy HOFer, as they are in trying to decide which free agent their favorite team should sign. Whereas, in horse playing, no one (at least, no one that I've ever heard of) is using speed figures to determine if Citation was a better horse than Gallant Fox. All, 100%, of the information explosion in thoroughbred horse racing is being used by the horse player for one purpose and one purpose only: for it's predictive value in helping the player determine who will win today's race.

DB
   8. Downtown Bookie Posted: August 05, 2011 at 02:46 PM (#3893335)
Whoops - Double post.

DB
   9. stanmvp48 Posted: August 05, 2011 at 03:42 PM (#3893385)
I seem to remember Beyer saying he had tried to do speed figures on horses from the past and come up with ridiculously high numbers. This may mean that the really bad horses from those days have been filtered out or it may mean there is something wrong with the process or it may mean nothing. Incidentally, the horse who ran 31 lenghts behind Secretariat in the 73 Belmont ran a figure that would have won last years-I haven't seen the figure for this year.
   10. Blubaldo Jimenez (OMJ) Posted: August 05, 2011 at 06:19 PM (#3893476)
So these guys are watching the Kentucky Derby in their mother's basements?


My mother's basement is decadent and depraved!


Alternate joke: Out of shape white adult male in cargo shorts, polo shirt and sandals, wearing a big fancy hat and drinking a mint julep while pouring over spreadsheets.

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