Picking Winners: How Andy Beyer Revolutionized Betting on Horse Racing

Picking Winners: How Andy Beyer Revolutionized Betting on Horse Racing

If there was a Mount Rushmore for horse racing handicappers, it’s an odds-on proposition that the first face on it would belong to Andy Beyer.

Some people may have won more money wagering on the races than Beyer, but no other person has enjoyed as profound and prolonged of an impact on the art of handicapping as the 80-year-old graduate of Harvard University.

“Andy Beyer wrote a book that changed the game like no one else,” said New York Racing Association handicapper and analyst Andy Serling. “He was a trailblazer. I can’t imagine what the game would be like without him and the way he made it better for so many people like myself.”

As much as Beyer was a powerful voice in the industry as a writer and columnist for nearly 50 years for the Washington Post and the Washington Daily News, his most important contribution to the sport of racing and its fans came in 1975 when he authored the groundbreaking book “Picking Winners” that revolutionized handicapping.

More than 45 years later, “Picking Winners” is just as effective and educational for handicappers as it was when it first landed at bookstores in the 1970s and remains remarkable for the army of new handicappers it has spawned over the years.

“Andy wrote ‘Picking Winners’ at the time when I discovered racing,” Serling said. “It was an important time in my life. That book meant everything to me. I still have it and when I look through now it is amazing to me how many things in that book still play a role in my handicapping.”

The book featured chapters of Beyer’s brilliant prose, but at the heart of it were the pages that created a relatively new concept in racing. People produced and sold speed figures before the publishing of “Picking Winners” but it was Beyer who introduced them to a mass audience and documented the necessity for them.

“I think it’s fair to say horse racing did not have any recognized objective measurements of horses’ performances before them,” Beyer said.

Prior to “Picking Winners” and speed figures becoming fashionable, handicappers had to rely on a track variant in the Morning Telegraph, aka the now defunct “The Telly,” or Daily Racing Form which consisted of an overly simplistic system based on track records at different distances.

It was Beyer who ushered in a new era by creating figures that leveled the playing field for performances at different distances.

For example, Beyer’s analytics found that a horse who ran six furlongs in 1:12 ran just as fast as a horse who ran seven furlongs in 1:25 and a mile in 1:38. That time was given a figure of 94. In contrast, six furlongs in 1:12 2/5 was assigned an 88, seven furlongs in 1:25 3/5 an 87 and a mile in 1:38 3/5 an 88.

In essence, Beyer showed how a horse who ran a mile in 1:38 ran faster than a horse who covered six furlongs in 1:12 2/5.

That was part one of the process.

Part two consisted of creating winning pars for each level of races from claimers to allowance races and stakes. Beyer then refined that speed figure based on the average on how sprint and distance times held up against those pars. In essence, if one horse ran faster than the par and three were slower, it would enhance the speed figure of the horse who exceeded the par.

And with that, a new generation of handicappers was born.

“I was a math guy who made my own numbers when I was young thanks to Andy, and I loved it,” Serling said. “It was a perfect book since there was great handicapping information about the speed figures and also some great, entertaining stories.”

Remarkably, Beyer’s speed figures and formula have withstood the test of time and his 1975 book is as valuable and informative now as it was when it was first published.

“If you want to make Beyer Speed Figures you can still a buy a copy of ‘Picking Winners’ and do it yourself. The methodology I used in 1975 has really stood the time of time. The book has sold around 200,000 copies and has been translated into Japanese and Korean. It’s had a thorough vetting over the last 40 years,” Beyer said. “We’ve done some tweaking but to my amazement the numbers I used back then in a pre-computer era for $3,000 claimers at Bowie have help up quite well in the present day.”

Today speed figures have become a standard element in handicapping. Beyer Speed Figures appear in Daily Racing Form, numerous companies sell their own version of them and many handicappers craft their own figures, developments that fill Beyer with pride as he looks out on today’s landscape.

“Every time I hear someone say, ‘This horse got an 82 Beyer figure,’ I feel a sense of pride,” Beyer said. “I am proud that the Beyer figures have gotten entrenched in the sport.”

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Beyer still recalls the early resistance to his creation.

“The horseplayers embraced the numbers from the word go but the racing industry remained skeptical. Years later you could ask a trainer or a breeder about speed figures and they would give you the stupid line about time only being important when you’re in jail,” he said. “Over a period of time, the skeptics saw that speed figures reflect a horse’s abilities very well. An owner whose horse won a maiden race and thinks he has a Kentucky Derby horse might think again if the horse gets a Beyer figure of 72.

“In more recent years, the big players in the game, namely the breeders have come to realize the importance of the figures because you see them in ads for stallions or their progeny. If a horse runs a real fast race, the ads do not say a horse just won a Grade 2 stakes they will say it got a 114 Beyer Speed Figure.”

Aside from leading the way to winners at the betting windows, the influence of speed figures is best illustrated in the case of Stonestreet Stables’ Maclean’s Music, who won the only start of his career by 7 ¼ lengths on March 19, 2011.

“Maclean’s Music broke his maiden at Santa Anita easily and got hurt after that, ending his career. He was a horse that probably would not have gotten a meaningful shot at stud off a one-race career, except that his Beyer Speed Figure was 114, the biggest ever by a first-time starter,” Beyer said. “John Sikura at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm decided to give him a good shot at stud. He even called me to ask about the number and I looked up my worksheets and told him it was as solid as a rock. So they entered him at stud for a fee of $6,500 and bred 70 mares to him, making it a big financial event. His first crop produced a Classic winner (2017 Preakness winner Cloud Computing) and his stud fee jumped to $25,000 for this year.” (Editor’s note: it is now at $40,000 for 2024)

Speed figures shifted from a passion to business for Beyer in 1990 when he and Mark Hopkins co-founded Beyer Associates and began selling Beyer Speed Figures to The Racing Times, a new competitor for the Daily Racing Form. After the demise of The Racing Times, Daily Racing Form began publishing the speed figures with their past performances and Beyer Speed Figures became a household word in the industry.

“It might have made economic sense to keep everything to myself but I was a writer and a writer wants to write books. When we got the opportunity to go public and put the figures in print, I felt I might be showing my hole card, but I thought that if I didn’t, someone else almost certainly would,” Beyer said. “When the figures came into print in the DRF in 1992, I was determined to make them as good as they could be. I didn’t want to make mistakes with people betting money based on them. I wanted them to be as absolutely accurate as they possibly can because they go into the historical record. The way it worked out, I couldn’t ask for more. The Racing Form has given us tremendous support and exposure and I’m proud to work with them.”

Beyer retired from the Washington Post in 2014, giving him even more time to devote to the art of creating speed figures.

“I decided when I turned 70 that I didn’t need two jobs, and the Washington Post, like most mainstream media, lost interest in horse racing anyway,” he said. “The speed figures have become a bigger than ever part of my life and I figured it made sense to focus my energy on them. I’ve really become more conscious of scrutinizing numbers of the horses at the top level of the game and making sure that they are right. Our process is not just mechanical. We look at numbers and ask if it makes sense. We can override the normal calculation if something seems way out of whack.  If a horse gets a figure as high as say a 120 we will fully scrutinize it.”

The speed figure guru says that while the formula for dirt figures are as solid as ever, improving their scale for turf races has been a focus of attention for him, Hopkins, and their six workers in the last few years.

“We made some minor tweaks but the speed chart from ‘Picking Winners’ is intact. The one change is that a few years ago we changed our chart for turf figures. When you look at the finish of a turf race you will see a lot of horses bunched at the wire. The nature of turf racing is that a length is a more significant winning margin than a length on the dirt. So we made a change in the turf chart that would slightly increase the value of each increment of time,” Beyer said. “As we look ahead, my number one goal is to refine our turf figures. Turf racing pose some difficulties that are very, very different than a dirt race. I don’t think anyone deals with them perfectly but we’re going to try to advance the sophistication of our turf figures. When Gulfstream runs a race with the rails out 85 feet and a 289-foot run-up to the official start there’s a lot of room for error in timing turf races.”

While Beyer spends less time in the spotlight, his fans can occasionally watch him in action at Saratoga where he will sometimes join his good friend Serling for the “Talking Horses” preview show on the simulcast feed.

“It’s become a tradition for me to appear with Andy before the Woodward on the last Saturday at Saratoga,” Beyer said. “There’s no card I handicap any more intensely than Woodward day. Andy is unbelievable. He is so well prepared race after race and day after day. I know if I do a once-over lightly on even one race he’s going to poke holes in every bit of specious logic I use. Nobody has done public handicapping better than Andy. He’s in a class by himself.”

Interesting and impressive words, especially when they come from one of the figures on handicapping’s Mount Rushmore.

Note: This Legends feature on Andy Beyer was first published in July 2018 and has been updated.


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