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For Speed Expert Beyer, Secretariat Still Supreme

BY Mike Fritz and Tom LeGro  June 10, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer. Photo by Tom LeGro/PBS NewsHour

Things could have turned out much differently for Andrew Beyer, The Washington Post’s longtime horse racing columnist.

“I was on a path to be a degenerate gambler,” laughs Beyer.

Blessed with enough brains to attend Harvard in the ’60s, Beyer had one final exam to take before completing his coursework. But the Belmont Stakes was the same day. Guess where he ended up going.

“The proximity of so many racetracks to Harvard Square kind of undid my academic career,” Beyer jokes. But it didn’t derail his professional career. Rather, it launched it.

Beyer followed his passion into a career in journalism and along the way became one of the sport’s leading figures by developing a statistic used by gamblers all over the country.

Beyer has been a horse racing journalist since 1966 and a columnist for the Washington Post since 1978, an achievement in itself considering the ongoing woes of the newspaper industry. (Early in Beyer’s career, Shirley Povich, the Post’s legendary sportswriter and editor, told him that in sports the big three were baseball, boxing and horse racing.)

“I just like the horse-racing world,” says Beyer. “I hear from colleagues about how tough it is to deal with the modern-day athletes who have a hostility to the press. In horse racing there really is a kind of community. When I was a beat [writer] who went out to the barns before the Kentucky Derby, very rarely did you encounter the arrogance that is in most other sports.”

While his longevity as a sportswriter is certainly an accomplishment, his greatest claim to fame is arguably the creation and industry adoption of the Beyer Speed Figures.

In the early 1970s, Beyer began working on way to best measure and predict a horse’s speed. His idea was a numerical rating system that expresses in one number how fast a horse has run and takes into account the length of the race and the speed of the racing surface. It was “an incredible revelation,” he says.

Imagine trying to build a fantasy baseball team without knowing players’ batting averages. It would be like placing a bet on a horse without knowing how fast it runs.

“When I started doing the figures, my one and only goal was so that I could understand the sport so I could gamble,” Beyer says. “I never had a glimmer of an idea to do something commercial with them. I was extremely protective of them. I’d write my numbers in a red flare pen and in a red vinyl folder, and I wouldn’t even let people look over my shoulder to see what I was writing down.”

But in 1975, Beyer published “Picking Winners,” a book about his speed figures, and changed the way bettors and handicappers waged their dollars. Reviewers likened it to the Herbert Yardley classic, “The Education of a Poker Player.”

In 1992, the Daily Racing Form, essentially the industry bible, asked Beyer and his associates to provide ratings for virtually every horse in North America. With the aid of computer technology, they’ve been able to do it.

Rating horses was — and remains — a time-consuming process. On a given day, Beyer and his handful of associates will watch dozens of races and analyze their results. They’re able to watch both live races and old ones online at home. They make note of the track and its conditions, the length of the race and, of course, how fast the horses make it around the track.

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“There are two components to a speed figure,” Beyer explains. “One is the raw speed rating, which is simply the equivalent of a certain time for a certain distance… The other component of the figure is called a track variant, which is a number that represents the inherent fastness and slowness of the track on a given day. That’s applied to the speed rating.” The result is the speed figure.

When bettors check entries in the Daily Racing Form, they can immediately see the horses’ Beyer Speed Figures: the higher the number, the faster the horse. But everything does not just boil down to speed, of course.

“There are dozens of other factors…that in many cases may trump the importance of time: what happens during the course of a race in terms of the trouble a horse might get into,” he said “This is a complicated game. It can’t be reduced to one simple calculation but the most important single factor is how fast the horses have run. And that’s the one thing we can do and measure and do with accuracy.”

Pen in hand, watching the horses run on the computer monitor, Beyer jots down notes and numbers right on the Daily Racing Form entry. Next, he enters his figures into a program, and then it’s on to the next race.

In all his years, there’s no doubt about the fastest horse he ever saw. Using his current methodology, Beyer looked at Secretariat’s legendary run at the 1973 Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown. He was astonished.

“[I] came up with a figure of 139, which is by far the best of any horse I’ve seen,” he said, noting that Ghost Zapper’s 128 was the best rating of all horses in the last 10 years. “Secretariat was in a different dimension than any other horse we’ve seen in modern times.”

Asked how it feels to have an entire industry adopt what could have been his personal gambling secret, Beyer says, “I’m glad to do it, because when I was starting out there was really nowhere to turn [for consistent speed figures],” before joking about the outcome of his own life.”And, yeah, it gives me a good feeling to be the person who’s responsible for so many misspent lives.”