5 Easy Steps to Picking a Winner in Quarter Horse Racing

5 Easy Steps to Picking a Winner in Quarter Horse Racing

If you're new to the sport of American Quarter Horse Racing, check out these five wagering tips.

post parade at Ruidoso Downs (Credit: AQHA/Dan Dry)

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1. The need for speed.

Known as "America's fastest athletes," American Quarter Horses can accelerate to speeds of up to 55 mph. The measurement of how fast they have run in previous races is called the "Q-Speed Figure" and is noted in bold in the official program. Comparing the numbers of horses competing in a race, some of which can exceed 100, is a very useful tool in selecting a winner.

2. Look for the leaders.

At each track, the trainer and jockey standings are referenced in the official program. Take a minute to see who is on top; the leaders often finish in the top three in the majority of their races.

3. Watch the post parade.

Before each race, the horses "parade" in front of the grandstand as part of their warm-up. Observing body language can be a valuable tool in picking a winner. Look for a horse with a shiny coat, nicely arched neck, spring in his stride, and alert, energized demeanor. Horses that are sweating profusely, bucking or exhibiting other nervous behavior may expend too much energy before the race to produce an optimal effort.

4. Parlay troubled trips into cash.

American Quarter Horses are sprinters, generally running distances of a quarter mile (440 yards) or less. To win, they must break from the starting gate cleanly and run a straight path to the finish line. In the official program, there is a comment line on previous races. Notes such as "bobbled, broke in, stumbled or hopped at the start" mean that the horse never got the good start required for a winning effort. The horse usually finished out of the money, but should not be overlooked. With a good clean start, they have a great chance of winning at a price.

5. Have fun with your friends and family.

Some of the names of American Quarter Horses are quite whimsical and fun. Sometimes it is fun to throw serious handicapping to the wind and go with your gut instinct and  pick a favorite based on name, color of the horse or the silks of the jockey.

Over the past few years, the American Quarter Horse Association has sought to provide handicappers an improved and more robust speed figure. While the current speed index, around since the early '70s, is easy to understand, from a handicapping perspective it is not very useful.

After a full analysis, and with direct input on the calculation, AQHA has endorsed the Equibase speedfigure (ESF-E), which is now being displayed in printed track programs. Please note it is not replacing the current speed index, rather it is being added right next to the speed index.

Limitations of the Speed Index

Why is this being done? Let’s start with the definition of the speed index per the AQHA handbook:

“Speed index ratings are based on an average of the three fastest winning electric times run each year for the immediate past three years for each distance at each track. The average … will represent a speed index rating of 100.”

Simple to understand? Yes. Useful for the handicapper, not really. Take this hypothetical example:

  • Horse A equals best average time at a track with average or below average horses – earns 100 speed index.
  • Horse B equals best average time at a track with above average horses - earns 100 speed index.

Entered in the same race today, who would you bet on?

Again, while easy to understand, there are many issues with the index. Using the example above, inferior horses can achieve the same index as superior horses, rendering the index useless for handicapping applications. In addition, it poses a barrier to entry for Thoroughbred players who are accustomed to a more statistically sound figure. Finally, it only looks at times and does not take into account the differences between tracks, daily variants, or other factors like wind speed and direction.

Equibase Speed Figure (ESF)

The ESF is a much more useful number. It is a “normalization” of finishing times across all tracks and distances and is an indication of how fast a horse ran in a particular race. While rather complex, the calculation combines the raw time, inter-track variant (differences between size, shape, and composition of tracks) and the daily-track variant. Also, it has recently been updated to include wind speed and direction in the calculation.