By Denis Blake
(The following article is reprinted from the September/October 2000 issue of The HorsePlayer magazine.)
While past performance lines for American Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds share many similarities, there is one major difference. Instead of Beyer figures, Quarter Horse handicappers use speed indexes. Not to be confused with the Thoroughbred speed ratings used in Daily Racing Form, the speed index can be a powerful handicapping tool when used properly.
First, it is important to understand how speed indexes are calculated and how Quarter Horse races are timed. Basically, a speed index is a numerical assessment of how fast a horse ran in relation to the fastest times at a particular racetrack over the past three years. The higher the number, the faster the horse ran. Generally speaking, anything over 90 is excellent, and the 100 plateau is eclipsed by only the top sprinters.
Many handicappers do not realize that the two breeds are timed in different ways. Thoroughbreds are clocked from a running start with the timer starting when the horses are a few jumps away from the gate. In Quarter Horse racing, the timer starts the moment the gates open. Additionally, determining the exact time of Thoroughbreds who did not win can be an imprecise routine. Multiplying one-fifth of a second by the number of beaten lengths, and adding that to the winner’s time will give you a decent, but not exact, approximation. Quarter Horse races are timed so that each horse’s individual time is precisely recorded to a hundredth, and often to a thousandth, of a second. Using either a digital or conventional photo finish system, each horse’s exact time is recorded with precise certainty as he crosses the finish line. You can find a Quarter Horse’s individual running time, regardless of his finish position, printed in his past performance line.
Speed indexes are then calculated using these exact finish times. Each horse’s speed index is calculated based on the relation to the 100 speed index time assigned for that distance at that track. The formula for determining the 100 speed index time is fairly simple – the three fastest times from each of the past three years at each distance (a total of nine times) are averaged to come up with a single time. There are also some minimum standard times that are used at tracks that have not been in operation for three years or if this method does not produce an average that is faster than the minimum times set by AQHA. This is done for every recognized distance at each track that races American Quarter Horses.
To determine the speed index for an individual horse, first the difference between his final time and the 100 speed index time is calculated. For example, the 100 speed index time for 350 yards at Los Alamitos is :17.39. If a horse runs a :17.60, that time is .21 slower than the 100 speed index time. Points are then added or subtracted from 100 based on whether the time is faster or slower than the 100 speed index time. At the 350-yard distance, each speed index point is valued at .035 (the value is different at each distance). Since .21 divided by .035 is six, this horse’s speed index would be 94. If he had run faster than the 100 speed index time, points would be added to 100.
While this is not a complete explanation of how speed indexes are calculated, it should give you the general idea. Don’t worry about calculating them yourself; you can find them in bold print in each past performance line.
Just as with Beyer figures, reliance upon speed indexes alone will not make you a successful handicapper. The speed index is just one part of the handicapping equation, but it is an important one. However, when used improperly, speed indexes can hurt you as much as help.
Many of the same guidelines for using Beyer figures also apply to using speed indexes. Probably the most common mistake is comparing speed indexes earned under different circumstances. A 95 speed index at 870 yards has little meaning if the horse is running in a 400-yard race, just as a Thoroughbred who runs a 95 Beyer going a mile and a quarter probably will not reproduce that figure at six furlongs. Speed indexes can be deceiving even at similar distances. While 40 or 50 yards may not seem like much of a difference, some horses tire noticeably in the final 40 yards of a 440-yard race, while others need those last yards to hit their best stride. So a speed index at 400 yards does not always translate to a similar number going 440 yards. The same goes for considering any speed index earned at a distance that is different than the race in question.
Also, a high speed index at one racetrack may not always be repeated at another. The goal of the speed index system is to make it possible to compare performances at different racetracks and to have a 90 speed index at Ruidoso Downs be equal to a 90 at Los Alamitos. However, that goal can never be fully attained. Part of the reason is simply that a horse may not like the surface at one track compared to another. A horse may run a speed index 10 points lower at Ruidoso Downs than at Los Alamitos, not because the formulas are flawed, but because the horse may prefer one surface over another.
Track condition and wind can also influence speed indexes and must be considered when evaluating each horse. Specifically, was he aided or hindered by factors that will not be present today? The wind direction, if any, can be found in the past performance line. The following abbreviations are used – “cw” for crosswind, “hw” for headwind, and “tw” for tailwind. Depending on the racetrack, an off track can drastically alter final times. Familiarity with how a racing surface reacts to moisture can be a valuable tool in interpreting speed indexes.
Track bias is another factor to consider. Even though speed indexes are a precise and absolute calculation, subjective judgments about how the track was playing that day are essential to using them properly. A 95 speed index looks like good number by itself, but if horses were cracking the 100 mark all day, that can change your view. Comparing speed indexes and times posted on the same day can help you determine which horses really performed well that day. Much more so than in Thoroughbred racing, an inside or outside bias can have a major impact on the outcome of races in Quarter Horse racing. The majority of Quarter Horse races are run without a turn and with horses maintaining a straight line out of the gate. If the outside of the track is slow, a horse from the ten hole may be at a big disadvantage. Be forgiving of a horse’s uncharacteristically poor speed index, or leery of an abnormally high number if it was influenced by a strong bias.
Also, do not give too much weight to one extraordinarily high or low speed index. A number of factors can cause one number to look out of place, and most of the time it will not be repeated unless there is a valid reason. If a horse has consistently been running in the low 80’s and suddenly pops up with a 95, he will likely drop back down next time, unless a legitimate reason like blinkers, Lasix, a new trainer or other factor can explain his new found speed. Calculating the average speed index over the last three races (under similar conditions and distance) will usually give you a good number to use for comparison.
There is also one specific speed index situation to consider this year. Because of the way 100 speed index times are calculated, sometimes a true indication of how fast a track plays is not achieved until three years of racing are complete at a particular track. The 100 speed index times are updated every year to reflect the times recorded over the previous three years, but when a track has not be running for three years, minimum standard times are used for the missing years to calculate the averages. This does not always give a true assessment of the speed of the racing surface. Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie will present their fourth year of American Quarter Horse racing this fall and the 100 speed index times will drop significantly. For example, to earn a 100 speed index at Lone Star at 440 yards in 1999 a horse had to run :21.68, but he will have to run :21.46 this year to earn that 100 (a difference of about 1 ½ lengths). That :21.68 which would earn a 100 speed index last year, will only be good for a 95 this year. For handicappers this means identical times will produce speed indexes 3-5 points lower than they would have in 1999 at Lone Star, depending on the distance. Because of that, horses without a start at Lone Star in 2000 may look superior to those that have made a start. There could be some false favorites early in the meet at Lone Star when horses with inflated 1999 figures go up against horses that have run seemingly lower speed indexes this year. Keep this in mind for Lone Star’s meet, which opens in September.
Speed indexes earned at other new tracks can also be skewed during the first few years of racing. At SunRay Park in New Mexico (formerly San Juan Downs) the speed indexes posted last year, the first year of racing at that track since 1993, are higher than one would expect because of a fast racing surface and the use of minimum standard times (which would be considered slow times at SunRay) to calculate 100 speed index times. So do not count on horses with high speed indexes at SunRay to duplicate those numbers elsewhere.
With a better understanding of what a speed index is and how to properly use it, your success at the windows will increase.
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