Friday, 25 March 2011

A bright and Amy-able young trainer

Yesterday morning, I went along to Kempton to watch a few horses trained by Amy Weaver. Some were out to be sharpened mentally, others to be prepared more specifically for forthcoming breeze-up sales.

I like to do this now and again. It is always great to talk to trainers away from the pressures of raceday. In effect, the racecourse is their office and they tend to behave in a corresponding, conservative fashion.

Sometimes, a significant insight comes from these settings, either about the person or their methods. This may even help to improve the intuition of a writer in general - the process I described with regard to Tom Segal in the last post.

Most of all, meeting Amy reminded me of how determination can come in different packages. Some trainers are extroverted in this regard - a good example being Jeremy Noseda. They wear a bristling ambition and exhibit a sharpness of mind which is expressed through highly focused behaviour.

Others, like Amy, have what I would describe as a more subtle drive and fluid interest. They present themselves as being easier to engage in ideas common to more than one experience of racing.

You can read about her background here and find a young woman who has impressed at the various stops during her racing education.

During our conversation, she told me she owned copies of both Bioenergetics and Handicapping Speed and was fascinated by both. You may find this rather startling from one of the training profession. It speaks of a genuinely lively mind open to learning not just from the received wisdom of trusted peers but also through the channel of her own, separately nourished intelligence.

As a result of ordering Handicapping Speed, Amy has even begun an e-mail conversation with the author Charles Carroll. She is more than bright enough to apply some of Carroll's brilliant and esoteric ideas appropriately to her own situation. But, whether she will migrate to the plains of New Mexico and start training quarterhorses remains to be seen.

Amy also said that her fellow Newmarket trainers have so far been helpful and friendly, naming Michael Bell and Henry Cecil in this regard. That is good to hear and contrasts sharply with my experience in a different profession - some of the established racing journalists were hostile at every opportunity when I was 28.

These are tough economic times for a young trainer - even with a business model suitable to the reality of the market. There can be no guarantees of success with the volatility of results to which every small string is prone.

Moreover, there are so many other factors which can inhibit the growth of a new business. I would not pretend to know any of them, only that it would frighten me to operate in the system which racing in Britain presents.

I am no fan of boycotts. (Not even Geoff Boycott anymore, after the offensive rubbish he spouted about Michael Yardy's depression.) But, I cannot help feeling that the stance on minimum values made by such as Sheikh Mohammed and Richard Hannon is needed to impose more of an economic reality on British racing.

Trainers and their staff depend on prize-money contributions and there has to be a climate which makes it possible for smaller operations to have a chance.

So, best wishes to Amy and her highly motivated staff. Some part of the game depends on the willingness of youth to pursue their dreams. Especially when, given the breaks we all need in life, the intelligence needed to make a lively contribution is evident.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Tom Segal and intuition

Any Tom Segal column is always worth reading. That should go without saying.

This week, his clever corruption of a famous sporting quote in the Racing Post caught my eye: "Unlike Gary Player, the harder I work the worse I get."

This is testimony from a remarkable mind. Tom is without doubt the best newspaper tipster ever.

What a joke he has never been close to winning Racing Journalist of the Year. He should have the trophy in perpetuity.

While there are certain advantages Tom enjoys over the punter, these are petty, well documented and regularly brought up by his relatively few misguided critics in any case.

But, Tom is operating under a lot of pressure. Unlike you and I, he cannot salve the disappointment of an unlucky defeat in the next race on the card. He usually has to wait a week.

Moreover, he is expected to solve viciously difficult races with incomplete information. He does not rely on contacts, he does not have the advantage of knowing late changes in the going and cannot witness raceday interviews.

In all this, his integrity is beyond reproach. He has never taken advantage of the arbitrage provided by his influence over the markets. Heck, he often doesn't even take standout prices which would disappear if he capitalised on the value.

How Tom achieves his results is well beyond my comprehension. He is a brilliant thinker, yet somewhat erratic in the ideas he advances. One day he will tell you the effect of the draw is overrated, the next he will select a horse next to the fence at Ripon.

This, however, is an irrelevant diversion in the attempt to understand his approach. It is more important to know that he doesn't rely on figures and considers intellectualising a redundant process in finding winners.

In effect, Tom and I are different sides of different brains. And our psychology is equally juxtaposed when it comes to life. (I am guilty of thinking too much, of living in my mind and of trying too hard to formulate concepts from the stream of consciousness we all know as life itself.)

Lucky for me, there is room for the intellectual approach in this great game of ours. It writing about horses were only permissible by those with demonstrable results, I would now be buried in research to discover the newest prime number or be designing mathematical models for the use of mobile phones.

Instead, my approach is to engage the reader with ideas in one of two ways.

Either I write about those which are common to our intelligence which I have formalised logically and can instill deeper into our collective consciousness.

Or, I attempt insightful views which may be incomplete or coarse, which I can then improve by listening to those who respond constructively.

The driving force for my writing comes from that part of the brain we all know as our intellect. But the intellect is opposed, at least in some part, by our intuition.

Intuition can be thought of as that understanding of the world we cannot really justify by a logical process. So, I hope you can see how the opposition between intellect and intuition arises - as indeed it does between people who have learned to rely heavily on one process or another.

Of course, there should be room for both the intuitive and intellectual approach in a topic so multi-faceted as racing. And, happily, there is.

It gives me pride to say that some trainers and jockeys who were understandably hostile to my new-age ideas 15 years ago are now people with whom I can spend time fruitfully and peacefully.

To my mind, that says an awful lot about them. And an awful lot about people within the sport.

But, I still have to accept that I am a niche operator. Which is one reason I chose to give up the position on the Racing Post to which I had aspired all my working life.

The vast majority of racing followers are interested in finding winners. They do not have time for burrowing deeper and deeper into the esoterica of the sport.

They want quick ways to learn practical ideas which work. So, they are nourished not by writers like myself, but more by Tom.

You may find specific things you don't like in Tom's approach or expression. He's only human after all.

Many people who know about the mathematics of betting sneer at his one-dimensional staking approach or lack of each-way advice, for instance. But they fail to grasp the reasons he doesn't operate in this fashion.

Tom's knows full well that you should have more points on propositions which you assume provide the biggest edge. He is also aware that the place part of an each-way bet can be better value than the win.

But he doesn't do either because of accountability: he considers it disingenuous to have 10 points each-way on a 25-1 shot when nobody trying to follow him can possible bet like that.

So, he is prepared to forego a favourable distortion of his results for what a straightforward and accountable approach. And this is very much a defining characteristic.

Many people in this sport are impressive. The might inhabit roles as different as trainer, jockey, bloodstock agent, handicapper, analyst and television presenter and producer.

But, when it comes to the intuitive process of understanding what wins races, Tom is in a league of his own. And many punters benefit from it on a weekly basis - as do trainers and jockeys.

But, more can be learned from intuition than is evident from profit or loss figures. To be guided by your intuition is important to the harmonious flow of your life, so long as you can correct its sometimes erroneous lead by means of selective guidance of your intellect.

My intuition is severely underdeveloped and underemployed. I have lived in my mind too long and relied on it to get me out of harmful situations, from the playground to the Betfair forum.

Putting that right is the task of what is, hopefully, the second half of my life. And I intend to keep in mind the approach Tom brings to finding winners as a representation of a highly successful mindset which is at right-angles to my own inclinations.

Tom is one of a kind. I look forward to reading his input as long as we both live.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Letter from Bob Wilkins

Dear James,

I noticed the comments you made about my book Bioenergetics and Racehorse Ratings on your blog. Thank you, your remarks were much appreciated.

Many people want to buy books on racing in the hope that they will find a silver bullet that will make them rich. This book is not about that, but it is quite difficult to get the message over.

In Richard Epstein's 1967 book, The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic, the author gave up on racing because it didn't yield to his methods of statistical analysis. One year's results turned out to be significantly different from the previous year's and so on  - and Epstein couldn't cope with what he called "non-stationary processes".

This always puzzled me, but it took another 20 years before the solution arrived, when I read James Gleick's book Chaos. It explained so many things, not just to do with racing, but also in my professional life as an engineer.

We still have to use statistical tools (e.g. by taking an average value), but must be aware that there is an underlying chaotic component in anything that involves non-linear or turbulent activity.

Regards,

Bob Wilkins

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

This is the story of the Hurricane...


Sectionals for Supreme Novices' and Champion Hurdle

Elapsed time
Winner              to 2nd   to 4th   to 3out   to last   to line
Al Ferof              49.3     116.1   173.6     216.6    229.5
Hurricane Fly     51.0     119.5   174.7     217.1    230.4

Split time
Winner              to 2nd   to 4th   to 3out   to last   to line
Al Ferof              49.3     66.8     57.5       43.0     12.9
Hurricane Fly     51.0     68.5     55.2       42.4     13.3

(times are given in seconds and are specific to each horse)


Measured from the starting line to the finish - seemingly a unique way to clock jumps races - Hurricane Fly's running time for the Champion Hurdle was 230.4sec - 0.9sec slower than Supreme winner Al Ferof.

As many of you will know, this is no guide to their respective merit.

Comparing the performance of horses by means of their final time alone is deeply flawed. It should be clear the two races were run in contrasting fashion.

From what can be inferred safely from just a two-race sample, the Champion can be generalised as following a 'slow-fast-slow' tempo. (Simon Rowlands describes it more specifically as 'steady-quite fast-steady'.)

A pattern like this is just about the least efficient way to achieve optimal final time, so we must make allowance for it when assessing Hurricane Fly's winning time.

But there is also an extremely important tenet to observe when breaking down such races: the distances between runners at the finish are often compressed. So, horses of much lesser talent than those involved up front can be beaten shorter distances than in a truly run race.

It is my strongly held belief that the finish of the Champion featured two outstanding hurdlers in Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross. Moreover, I would back either to beat an in-form Binocular.

There is a fair amount of subjectivity in this opinion. I can't prove it on the basis of yesterday's race. Equally, however, it is not a view I have picked out of midair. Let me explain.

Experience of assessing thousands of races in the US - including on turf - led me to reach the understanding that the average distance between runners at the end of a race is more strongly correlated to the early pace than it is to their relative merit.

This, of course, runs contrary to a significant plank of what is often referred to as "collateral form" handicapping. When horses are assessed on the basis of 'who beat whom and by how far', a fixed scale is employed to convert lengths to pounds by most handicappers. Often, the highest ratings are awarded in races where there are extended distances between runners at the finish.

This is not only sensible but also fundamental to rating races around standards, as I described in the blog praising BHA handicapper Stewart Copeland. 

If you know nothing else about a race than the result, a race in which the runners finish spread out should receive a higher figure than one of the same class in which the field is compacted.

But, thanks to sectionals, we know a lot more about a race than this. We know how it was run, how the shape of the finish was influenced by its tempo. 

And it is not only common sense that encourages us to believe there is a causal link between the pace of a race and the distances between runners at the finish - we can use techniques like regression to understand the relationship mathematically. 

When you consider only the result of the Champion Hurdle, there is a serious problem in according Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross ratings which would justify my view that they are outstanding - even by the standards of the race.

No doubt you will read different views about the race in the days to come. Handicappers will say things like: "With 155-rated Clerk's Choice beaten 11.5 lengths in sixth, there is no reason to think that Hurricane Fly's pre-race rating of 167 has been improved upon."

There will be many variations of the same concept. And many of you will agree. 

Indeed, this is an entirely reasonable view - at least within the strictures of conventional handicapping.

It is therefore not 'wrong'. But it is seriously limited.

In a race run like the Champion - with a slow early pace and an unsustainable mid-race burst - a length at the finish may be worth a lot more than the pound of weight of which it is assumed to be roughly the equivalent. In such a contest as the Champion, horses separated on the scale of ratings by 10 points will not finish as much as 10 lengths apart.

In the US races I studied, I found an exponential relationship between the first-half-mile sectional of a race and the average distance between runners at the end. It was this which led me to believe that the ability to withstand early pace was the nearest single approximation to the ethereal notion of 'class' in the racehorse.

As you ascend the class scale, the final-time ability of racehorses changes. But, measured in percentage terms, there is a much bigger difference in the early pace which horses can sustain while still giving their optimal performance.

And this applies to both turf and dirt. (How it applies to synthetics still confuses me greatly, however.) The relationship between the two surfaces is different - late pace counts for a lot more on grass - but the same principle holds.

When it comes to the Champion, I do not have enough data to give you a figure which represents the true difference in ability between Hurricane Fly and horses like Thousand Stars, Clerk's Choice and, even, Bygones Of Brid. 

The Supreme and the Champion are just two races and provide nothing like the breadth of data sufficient to forge the necessary relationship.

But I am saying this: from everything I have learned about pace and energy through studying sectionals, I am thoroughly convinced that the distance between horses at the end of the Champion was compressed.

The early pace was just not strong enough to provide a true reflection of the relative merits of the runners when assessed by the result.

So, it is my contention that the ratings handicappers will allot to Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross will underestimate their talent. By how much, I am just not sure.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Clue to new series starting after Cheltenham

"Exceptional horses such as Secretariat or Mill Reef occasionally record exceptional times; but it is unclear at present how this is achieved. 

"It is possible that these horses had an exceptional metabolism that enabled them to produce such performances. 

"Thus the intramuscular accumulation of lactate (through anaerobic metabolism) ultimately limits muscle performance and appropriate training can delay its onset. 

"Do racehorse trainers regularly sample blood lactate during and after workouts and prepare individualised workouts as occurs in human training programs?

"In one study, blood lactate taken 2 and 5 min after exercise correlated well with the Timeform rating given to that racehorse

"Implementation of such training tools in the elite thoroughbred horse may, in addition to improving results and winning times, reduce injury rate and occurrences of poor performance."

David S Gardner, University of Nottingham, 2006

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Why Caviar will be off the menu at Ascot

In the wake of Black Caviar's stunning victory in the Group 1 Newmarket Handicap at Flemington this morning, many European racing fans are wondering if the great mare will be seen at Royal Ascot.

The star Australian sprinters Scenic Blast, Choisir, Miss Andretti and Takeover Target have already been successful at the big meeting in June. And Black Caviar has proved herself their superior.

Black Caviar's connections are unwilling to let the world champion sprinter make the trip, however. So, many observers have reacted by suggesting the Ascot executive should offer a financial incentive.

It would be a tremendous boost for global racing if Black Caviar came to the Royal meeting. The four-year-old has quickly developed a following among British and Irish Flat racing fans which can only swell before June.

Sadly, it is not going to happen. And the reason? 

Bad blood.

Black Caviar's outspoken trainer Peter Moody is firmly entrenched in his position that European sprinters should be prepared to make the opposite journey, once in a while.

In 2008, Moody became embroiled in a row with British trainer Mark Johnston which was aroused by the Australian sprinter Takeover Target, winner of the 2006 King's Stand Stakes at the Royal meeting. 

Takeover Target, trained by Joe Janiak, had tested positive for a banned substance HPC (basically an appetite stimulant) before the Hong Kong International meeting five months after his Ascot success.

Johnston railed against Takeover Target's return to Ascot in 2008, composing a strongly-worded article for his in-house magazine Kingsley Klarion. The piece appeared under the picture of a juiced-up bodybuilder and carried the headline: "Invitation To Cheat?"

Moody, who was at Ascot to saddle another smart sprinter Magnus, retorted sharply: "I would suggest Mark Johnston is one of the most unpopular trainers in England, and I don't think anyone will take much notice of what he has to say anyway. He is talking out of his backside. 

"We have far more stricter drug-rules than they could ever dream of here in England. Everyone, myself included, tries to give our horses every advantage, but, at the same time, we try to work within the rules. This particular drug [HPC] wasn't against the rules of racing."

As the row fermented, British trainer Jeremy Noseda added the weight of his opinion. Then, Moody had more to say himself, as the argument somewhat changed direction:

"I'd love to see one of these blokes get off their own dunghill and come down to Australia to compete with us," he said. "Even Mr Noseda, who wants to throw his toys out of the cot now and again.

"It's disappointing and surprising the Europeans don't target our sprints and only come down for the Melbourne Cup. It's easier to travel sprinters and the money is so good - only last Saturday, we had a million-dollar handicap in Brisbane. 

"It would be a lot better if we could get this North v South thing going at both ends."

Of course, barbed comments of this type hardly preclude other sporting rivalries between Britain and Australia. But, Moody does appear to have painted himself into a corner, and he has stated firmly he has no intention of sending Black Caviar to Royal Ascot.

While money can smooth even the most furrowed brow, and every man is supposed to have his price, it does seem extremely unlikely that the gruff North Queenslander will relent.

So, global racing fans will be deprived of seeing the world champion Black Caviar prove herself on a stage befitting the title. 

If the Ascot executive wanted a suitable tune to call the runners to post for the 2011 King's Stand, they need look no further than Talking Out of Turn by the Moody Blues.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Sectional healing I

In this occasional series, I will be highlighting examples of the use of sectional times by others. 

You already know of my deep frustration when people spout rubbish like: "Sectionals have limited application to British racing because of the variety of our courses."

When I encounter this, I like to think of a football crowd standing and chanting: "You don't know what you're doing!" at the individual concerned.

In fact, even now I can feel the tension rising in my shoulders. 

When I get that feeling, I need sectional healing; sectional healing makes me feel so fine.

So, first up is a BHA handicapper. "What?" you might say. "The same firm that came up with those funky two-year-old ratings last year? No way!"

Am I only joking? Yes, of course. 

I have always been positively disposed to the work of Britain's hard-pressed team of official handicappers. I worked with some of them at Timeform and know first-hand of their top-notch ability.

I do think it is a little ridiculous when they take credit for close finishes or tightly-packed fields, however. It is far more likely that randomness or pace is the reason, rather than the genius of the assessor.

If the BHA handicappers deserve credit for blanket finishes, doesn't it follow they should be criticised for wide-margin wins?

Nobody in their right mind would do that. So, the corollary is that the same must apply to close finishes.

Anyway, back to sectional times. I cannot praise BHA handicapper Stewart Copeland highly enough for what appeared on the BHA handicapper's blog recently. This article is well worth checking out every week, either on the authority's own website or Racingpost.com.

I didn't need to read Stewart's words to know he is a first-class operator. 

Not only does he give us a great insight into the intelligent way he rates horses, but he also provides a useful tutorial on how you can bring sectional times into your life and punting.

The parts of Stewart's missive which I have underlined make my heart sing. As a general point, there are two clues - among many contained within - which prove that you are reading the thoughts of a handicapper who knows his craft:

1) He doesn't constantly use phrases like "I rated the race through". Clearly, we all employ sloppy language occasionally, and I am not saying anyone should be condemned for their words - if their actions speak louder to the contrary. But, it makes me cringe when handicappers use this expression.

A race should be rated around as many horses as possible - and not by choosing the one most likely to have "reproduced" his figure.

The purpose is to broaden the sample-size and try to ensure the correct balance of as many ratings as possible (see point 2). 

Looking for a "marker-horse" or some such nonsense inevitably leads to many bogus conclusions about races. I call this the "sample-of-one" fallacy.

2) As Stewart mentions underneath, a good handicapper employs standards, or class-pars for US readers. It is indisputable that using standards is massively important to good handicapping.

Standards - derived from the past results of the same race or similar ones to it - are crucial for many reasons. They stop the average figure of the population drifting, for instance. 

Expressed more formally: standards provide a framework over which a handicapper can layer his individual interpretations while maintaining the mathematical relationship between horses in the population and races in the database.

I am sure that BHA handicappers are well aware of both these ideals whch is why they do such a good job.

* * *

Stewart Copeland, BHA handicapper (The link to the full article is here.)

"Race-riding and tactics often play a key role in determining the outcome of a race, and this year's renewal of the Listed 6f Cleves Stakes at Lingfield on Saturday [26 February] aptly demonstrated that.

"At first glance the success of the front-running 16-1 outsider Waveband may appear a puzzling result, but when the race is looked at in greater detail it provides a fascinating insight into how pace, or quite often lack of it, can be crucial.

"The first thing that struck me when analysing the race was the overall time was around 8lb slower than the handicap over the same distance - won by the 74-rated Norville - earlier in the afternoon. However the end time [or "final time" here at TFNL] only tells part of the story, and this is where sectional timing comes in.

"A slow time can result from an overly strong pace or a steady one, and sectional timing helps paint the picture.

"In comparing the two races the sectional times showed the handicap was run at a stronger pace through the first 4f, the sectionals at the 2f, 3f & 4f marker all producing quicker times than the Listed contest.

"It was only in the last 2f that the gap narrowed - hardly surprising given the respective quality of the two fields - though the handicap still marginally came out the quicker.

"What do we glean from this? Simply the winner of the Blue Square-sponsored Listed race was given a very good ride! Looking at the race beforehand, there seemed very few contenders for the lead, and Waveband's jockey Martin Dwyer utilised his filly to maximum effect.

"The sectionals suggest he left just enough in the tank to repel a posse of challengers, several of which had refused to settle off the modest pace which hardly helped their cause.

"There's little doubt the form is potentially muddling, with the first nine covered by two lengths, and I decided a cautious approach to summing up Waveband's improvement was best. I eventually settled on a figure of 96, an improvement of 5lb from her previous best of 91.

"This is a few pounds below the standard I'd normally expect for the Cleves Stakes, but given how the race panned out, I think it's the sensible view to take for now. "

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Lies, damn lies and the Cold List

Trainers who have endured a losing sequence are sometimes affronted by their inclusion on the so-called Cold List. As men and women running a business, they are understandably keen to avoid any damage to their reputation.

Clearly, it is rare that the analyst means anything personal by his observation - even if he or she clearly doesn't have a clue about the proper use of statistics.

Heck, sometimes the critic is entirely justified that the yard is not firing at present.

It happens to the best of all handlers - except Mark Johnston, of course.

But, statistics can be dangerous weapons in the hands of those who don't have sufficient mathematical skills.

The problem often starts with the metric employed to judge the criterion of "form". And this brings us to the dreaded Cold List.

Let's consider a trainer with a yard of mostly moderate stock. The majority of his hapless beasts are protagonists in the many low-grade handicaps in this great game of ours.

Every week, these noble steeds do battle with factors like randomness, the considerable intellect of certain BHA handicappers and the invidious effects of the draw.

All things considered, it is by no means to a trainer's discredit if the yard is ticking along at a strike-rate of 8%.

During the 2010 Flat season, trainers such as James Given, Jim Goldie, John Best, John Jenkins and Alan McCabe achieved this feat. There are some really capable names on this list, not the least of which is the excellent McCabe.

Now, let's take a sample of 20 runners which could have been sent out by one of these yards. In this hypothetical example, all of the horses are in identical physical condition.

In other words, the yard is form 'proof' so that its results are merely the result of random variation. (For the initiated, the 'trial' represented by each runner is independent of the results of the others.)

We can use the binomial expansion to calculate the probability - and corresponding odds - of the sample containing a certain number of winners. Here are the results:

0                18.9%             4.3 - 1
1                32.8%                2 - 1
2                27.1%             2.7 - 1
3                14.1%             6.1 - 1
4                  5.2%           18.2 - 1
5                  1.5%              67 - 1
6+                0.4%            262 - 1

If we combine the probability of 0 winners and 1 winner in the 20-runner sample, we get the following interesting result:

P (0 winnners) + P (1 winner)  =  .189   +  .328
                                                 =  .517   or    51.7%  or    0.93 - 1

In other words, in any 20-runner sequence of a trainer with an 8% strike-rate, it is odds on - more likely than not - that he or she will have a maximum of one winner.

Think about this for a second. If you were about to have a serious bet on one of James Given's runners, for instance, how might you react if someone said: "Stop! While I am a huge fan of that particularly talented trainer, I have noticed he has had only 1 winner from his last 20 runners."?

Would you move on regardless? Brush off the comment because you know of its insignificance?

Then, good for you. But there are plenty - including some who earn a living from analysing racing - who would be concerned, perhaps even save their money for another day. 

More specific to the infamous Cold List, it is less than 9-2 (18.9% probability) that our trainer will have 20 losers on the trot. So, to draw the inference that he or she is out of form - that future runners from the stable are likely to perform below expectations - is not just unfair to the trainer but may cost you money as a punter.

At this point, you might be saying: "Come on. I would never say that a trainer is out of form after just 20 losers."

Good for you, then. But I guarantee there are similar, if not worse, claims made with racing statistics every day. And the most disingenuous presentation is when the operator attaches "..for what it is worth" as a disclaimer, as if he or she has any idea of statistical significance.

Trainers who sometimes get annoyed when they are identified as being "out of form" may have justification on their side.

And, with regard to racing statistics in general, ask yourself these questions next time someone attempts to blind you with stat-geek pseudoscience:

Have they taken sample-size into consideration?
Do they understand how to test for statistical significance?
Are there biases to their sample in the first place?

Yes, there are some good operators who use statistics in the media. Timeform's Simon Rowlands writes superb articles on their site, while Hugh Taylor of At The Races deserves particular praise for his flexible and intuitive use of the numbers. And I have mentioned advanced websites like Flatstats.co.uk and SmarterSig.com in other postings.

But don't let me come across as an intellectual snob. Even if they make strictly the odd mistake in interpreting a forest of statistics, some operators can easily be forgiven because of their robust approach overall.

Racing statistics do provide entertainment to a huge number of people. You only have to look at the deserved popularity of products like those of Paul Jones and Mark Howard.

Such is the enthusiasm with which these guides provide statistics - and indeed highlight good winners -  that they increase interest in the sport and provide their followers with the feeling they are employing a sophisticated approach. That can only be good for the game.

But, back to the Cold List. If you read this article and your reaction was: "Wait a minute, Willoughby you muppet. Winners-to-runners - nobody seriously uses that anymore, do they?

"Surely it went out with people who think front running is 'doing it the hard way'. We, the enlightened, use other statistical measures - like the average distance a stable's runners were beaten, their run-to-form percentage, or the impact value of a good-sized sample of their recent runners.

"Surely everyone knows there is far more inherent significance in these metrics?"

Then, give yourself a pat on the back. Because you, sir, know your stuff.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Equine Flow Psychology V

Consider the fractions run by Blame and Zenyatta in that unforgettable 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic:

Blame                       24.6     24.5     23.7     24.6     24.9
Zenyatta                   26.3     23.7     23.7     24.5     24.1

The times are given in seconds and tenths. Even pace for a final time of 2:02.3 could be represented by quarters of 24.4, so it easy to see that Blame ran the more evenly. 

(This, as many of you will know, is a rather coarse form of analysis, as ideal pace over 10f at Churchill Downs is not exactly five equal quarters of 24.4, but licence is asked for ease of explanation. And the same applies to the comparison with the 2009 Classic at Santa Anita below.)

If Blame and Zenyatta were clones, the runner-up could be proclaimed the better horse with confidence. Her first quarter of 26.3 represents by far the biggest deviation from even pace, so it is axiomatic that she used her energy less efficiently.

Zenyatta, who broke in something of a tangle, could not recover the ground she lost early. But should her jockey Mike Smith have moved earlier, as many asserted?

First, compare Zenyatta's sectionals from 2010 with those from 2009 Classic at Santa Anita, run on the track's Pro Ride surface which was faster than the Churchill Downs dirt:

2009            26.9     23.3     23.3     23.9    23.2
2010            26.3     23.7     23.7     24.5    24.1

When Zenyatta won the 2009 Classic, she actually ran the first quarter slower than in 2010, but her final quarter was her fastest and represented genuine top-notch acceleration.

In 2010, by contrast, Zenyatta could muster a final quarter of only 24.5 which was slower than she was running earlier in the race. 

In other words, she was not limited by the maximum speed reasonably attainable - as many implied after her vain, late charge - she was tiring. Her finishing flourish was made to look more impressive because it was framed against a slow final quarter in general.

Had Smith been more vigorous in the early stages, Zenyatta would have run the final quarter even slower. Moreover, there is no reason to suggest it would have been a more successful move: the energy cost of recovering that fleeting losing margin would have been higher for her at 23.7 per quarter early than at 24.1 per quarter late.

But why did Zenyatta have to lag behind at all? Some accused Smith of showboating, of assuming that tactics which Zenyatta could overcome against slower females in California would work against some of the best horses in the world.

I believe the answer lies in the concept of psychological flow. In the last part, I detailed scientific research which has concluded that the vigour of an animal's physical response to a stressor is closely related to the control it can exert over it. (Control is a psychological term for freedom of choice.)

From an early stage of Zenyatta's career, it was clear she had an idiosyncratic style of racing. It could be said that the vigour of her finishing response was dependent on the freedom she had to race within herself early.

If you watch closely down the back stretch of the 2010 Classic, Zenyatta was carrying both her head and tail in a pointed fashion. And though Smith could have been more vigorous, neither was he sat still. 

Zenyatta was expressing her control over the stressful experience of racing by doing things in her own time - just like she always did. 

And Smith learned that a jockey had to work with and not against her in this regard. He had to allow her freedom to run within the envelope of her psychological needs.

We should never forget how tough racing is for the top-class horse. As Aidan O'Brien and others have learned from the evidence provided by heart-rate monitors: the great ones are those not just of the deepest talent but the most committed response.

Horses like Zenyatta are operating right on the edge of the thoroughbred's capabilities. It has been shown, for instance, that the tensile force on their cannon bones is very close to that required to shatter them.

Moreover, their heart-rate and blood pressure is near to the maximum their systems can sustain without fatal consequences. And all the while they are not fully cognisant of what we are trying to achieve by stressing them.

If a horse needs some control over this massive stress; if it will only go so close to the level of effort which is enough to badly hurt it; if it needs to express some sense of "self" in the turmoil of exertion. Well, it is hardly surprising, is it?  

Racing makes its special connection with us because horses are not insentient like cars. And, when great performances against the clock are encountered, there is always a feeling that the horse has given something special on both a physical and psychological plane.

Every time I watch my favourite horse Ghostzapper win the 2004 Classic at Lone Star (the link is here) there is always a point just after the turn for home when he palpably seems to let go. 

If you compare the way he is moving 50 yards out to earlier in the race, there is evident freedom in his action and a release of the tightness in his physique.

This is something special. And it is my connection with racing, as much an any pleasure which analysis can supply. 

If you remember the formative races of Ghostzapper's career, he would lag behind early, even though he had tremendous speed. It wasn't so much the lesser distance of races: this was the way he needed or wanted to run.

This is the implication of Flow psychology: to get maximal effort from the top-class racehorse - to encourage them to bring it all - we don't have to drive them against their will, we don't have to bully them. Instead, we must allow them just as much freedom, or control, as the tactical constraints of a race will allow.

This may not hold so well at the other end of the class scale, but in its purest form it is an important plank of the ethical defence of racing: that there is something to be had from running for the horse.

In general, I am no fan of Smith as a rider - he has never seen a wide trip he didn't like. But he understood Zenyatta the athlete so fully, and he had a strong grasp over his role as her partner. As a result, he rode her so beautifully and so effectively throughout her career.

To pin Zenyatta's sole defeat on her regular rider because he did not push her harder when we thought he should appeals as extremely unfair. And, not for the first time, it may be evidence of a superficial approach to racing analysis; that some of us often have a limited and simplistic philosophy where animals are involved.

As far as the science of sectionals is concerned, all this might appear nebulous. But it is actually fundamental and can be summarised in one line:

When comparing a horse with the ideal, first remember to compare it with itself.

And that's the point I was driving at in this series. Horses tend to have a sectional imprint which is common to their best efforts and is characteristic of themselves. 

While ideal pace exists for any course and distance, there is a distribution around it which represents the horse population and their individual needs.

Many, like Blame, are close to the mean while few, like Zenyatta, depart greatly from it.

* * *
I hope you have enjoyed the series and found something in common within your own experience. Many thanks to all who have read it and made such generous and enlightening remarks.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Equine Flow Psychology IV

"Much of the early research on the effects of stress was carried out on animals. These efforts led to the demonstration that psychological factors are an important part of an animal's response to physical stressors.

"In particular, it has now been shown conclusively that the extent to which an animal is given options to respond effectively to a particular stressor strongly influences how much physiological deregulation and breakdown will occur as a result."

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, pp238-239 Full Catastrophe Living (Piatkus Books)

***

Kabat-Zinn's reference is a neat summary of a whole range of research about the integral relationship between mind and body in the animal.

The passage I quoted is apposite to the attempted conclusion of Equine Flow Psychology. In particular, the underscored section describes an important concept - also expounded by other academics - that the more free-will an animal has in dealing with a stressor, the more effective is its physical response.

This is an extremely profound result for horse racing. At once, it suggests that thoroughbreds react more fully to the task of running fast times if they have some freedom to do so in their own way.

However, the tactical demands of a race allow only so much latitude in this regard. A racehorse has little or no concept of the location of the winning-post; at most, it may learn from experience how the physical exertion expected of it varies with the rhythm of a race.

But the more it is allowed some control over the regulation of its exertion, the more it will give. "Control, a psychological factor, is key in protecting an animal from stress," Kabat-Zinn writes.

If you read how Aidan O'Brien described the psychology of his horses in the last part, you should recognise a similar idea. It has been assumed that the psychological spur for the racehorses is exclusively the flight response; this, for instance, is the rationale behind blinkers - most famously sported by no less than Secretariat, of course.

But, this as a single ideal may be characteristic of our limited view of animals and their psychology. A racehorse may have little connection with the human aspirations of racing, but its psychological relationship with the stress-and-release of it - the action and the feeling - does not start or end there.

That a racehorse should have an intimate relationship with running should hardly be a surprise. As grazing, nomadic individuals in their original setting on the plains, horses depended on the expression and conservation of energy in order to survive. Those instincts have presumably been greatly modulated in the purpose-bred horse, but man still recognises the thoroughbred as the ultimate "running horse".

Of the many examples of racehorses expressing their individual relationship with racing, the most interesting and controversial may be contained within the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

I would like to say that Zenyatta's flying finish and narrow defeat to Blame made it one of the most hotly debated races of the year. Except, of course, there wasn't much of a debate to be heard. 

Instead, there was only diatribe. And - not for the first time in this great game of ours - its subject was a jockey.

Zenyatta's rider Mike Smith was hung, drawn and quartered without a trial on the Sky channel At The Races. No doubt the same happened elsewhere. 

Whatever the motivation for this type of analysis, those who expound it how full-well how it goes down with disgruntled punters. We all all feel better if someone else is to blame for our misadventures, after all.

To my mind, the unmitigated criticism of Smith recalled similar approbation of Hawk Wing's jockey Jamie Spencer after the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket in 2002 - a horse finishes strongly, ergo it should have won if the dumb-arse jockey had made his move sooner.

When horses are so narrowly beaten as Zenyatta and Hawk Wing, it is impossible to say their jockeys could not have taken alternative action resulting in victory. But, in assuming the very high probability of this, the argument seems to rely solely on the margin between winner and runner-up decreasing rapidly as the line approached.

But, this simple effect can be the result of multiple causes. And the most evident cause of a horse finishing stronger than another is that its energy was deployed later not less efficiently.

To go ahead and excoriate Smith denies the complexity of so much that makes a race both beautiful and compelling. And to do so on the prima facia evidence of "horse finishes strongly/horse narrowly beaten therefore horse should have won" is not just a limited analysis. It is often plain wrong.

Next time, I will describe how the sectional times of the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic describe the running of that thrilling race. But, more importantly given the thrust of this series, what they suggest about Zenyatta.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Equine Flow Psychology III

If Secretariat's Belmont Stakes win was an affront to the even-pace ideal, so too was his previous win in the Kentucky Derby. This time, however, the distribution of energy described by sectional times was tilted in the other direction.

Secretariat's individual sectionals at Churchill Downs in 1973 were:

25 1/5   24   23 4/5   23 2/5   23

Each split was faster than its predecessor(s) for a time of 1:59 2/5 which still stands as the race record. Secretariat also lost ground on the first turn, adding to the merit of his performance.

Putting together the evidence provided by this race and the Belmont, it's clear that Secretariat had a lot more than just the ability to run super fast final times. He had extreme tactical versatility, too.

As everyone who cares about racing should know, Secretariat was an outlier to the thoroughbred talent continuum. According to my experience, the vast majority of horses do not own anything like his versatility.

Most are reliant on the race being run to suit. They might be a front-running type who needs to be left alone to run evenly, or a closer who thrives off a solid gallop because he can still run evenly while starting off at the back of the pack.

Notice that the most important factor in terms of pace is whether a horse is running evenly - not his position relative to other runners. That's an important distinction and a frequent mistake in analysis.

But, the manner in which Secretariat achieved 2:24 in the Belmont Stakes still needs an explanation which can be applied equally to other horses and other races.

Yes, Secretariat was an unusually talented horse. But, from my experience of many other horses who achieve fast times unevenly, I am drawn to believe that he would not have beaten that startling 2:24 by much, even if running the first half of the race more conservatively.

I believe that the psychological response of a racehorse can make a significant difference to its physical output; that the energy supply to a running horse is, at least in some part, contingent on its reaction to competition and its attitude to the mental stress of running hard.

Before I explain this idea further, I want to relay an anecdote which influenced my thinking to a degree. It happened, unexpectedly, at Ballydoyle.

Five years ago, when I was on the Racing Post, I attended Aidan O'Brien's media day along with a countless throng of other journalists. As the trainer was drawing his tour of the yard to a close, one of his assistants tugged my sleeve and told me to wait by some boxes at the top of a nearby yard.

I found myself there with Chris McGrath, The Independent's excellent racing correspondent and sports writer. I will never forget what followed.

O'Brien soon arrived and led us to his jeep. We followed the horses to the gallops while he talked about several topics of the day.

He told us we had been selected to talk to Kieren Fallon who was then the Ballydoyle stable jockey. But, while waiting in an office for Fallon to arrive, O'Brien mentioned a phrase I had used in a piece about some of his great horses. I had referred to one "seeing the dark side".

O'Brien proceeded to give Chris and I an amazing insight into his philosophy as a trainer. Instead of phrasing things in either the pat language of horse racing or in academic terms, he proceeded to discuss the psychology of his horses with near-spiritual zeal. Our audience lasted just 15 minutes but every second was magical.

Becoming more animated, O'Brien talked about how he feels the great equine athlete tends to develop. He said that horses would go only so far into their reserves before starting to back off from the exertion, even the pain.

He talked about putting heart-rate monitors on his horses in the morning and learning how little effort the really good ones made in half-speed gallops. But in faster work, the best horses were actually prepared to give more and dig deeper. And this was a significant part of what made them successful.

In particular, what enabled his champions to rack up sequences, he implied, was a growing confidence that the feelings of all-out exertion wouldn't hurt them; that they could give more freely and not back off from the increasing pressure on their system.

But, if a young or developing horse pushed itself too far because of the flight response, it might be reluctant to mine its talent so deeply again. In my words not O'Brien's, it could see the "dark side" of competition and learn that running hard hurts.

When Secretariat set off at that torrid pace in the Belmont, I think it likely he became in thrall to his talent. He might have been spurred on by the psychological flow of running so freely, to which his system responded with a positive feedback loop and delivered maximum energy to his tiring muscles.

Perhaps if Secretariat had gone steadier early on - if he had not been pestered by Sham and raced within himself - his system may not have responded the same way. 

With the benefit of even pace, he might have run slightly faster than 2:24. We will never know. But, it seems hard to believe he could have achieved a significant improvement on that still unparalleled mark.

When horses respond most fully to their experience during a race, I believe they produce absolute peak performances. And - using the principle of regression to the mean from the Bounce Theory - they are more likely than not to fall below the same level next time.

Human Flow Psychology was first formalised by the Hungarian professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - 97pts in Scrabble - as that feeling of being "in the zone". This is the concept that competition can promote heightened awareness, concentration and mental strength that enables some athletes to exceed their normal capabilities at times of great stress.

It has been shown in the laboratory that humans can control their own blood pressure, heart-rate and sweat glands simply by intense focus on the moment and its particular demands.

Horses may not be cognisant of the ambitions of a race, but to deny them possession of a psychological response to the experience seems to fly in the face of not just what we sense, but what we know about the electrical activity in their brains during exercise on a treadmill.

If Flow Psychology also applies to horses - which seems reasonable - it must be important when projecting performance on the basis of sectional times. It suggests that some horses may not be constrained by the even pace-optimal time paradigm because of their need to relate to competition in their own particular way.

When I built up a database of US racing sectionals from 2001-3, the noise I saw in numerous cases - horses who could only achieve fast times while departing from the ideal - could have been Equine Flow Psychology at work.

Now, in every case, it would be just as easy to infer a physiological reason for the aberrant pattern of sectionals.

Take late-running sprinters, for instance. Perhaps their metabolism works slowly; perhaps they are stiff and take time to warm up; perhaps it isn't that they need or want to lag behind early and come flying home, it is the imposition of their physical limitations.

All this is possible. It is just that I think of the particular sectional imprint of a horse as being driven, at least in some part, by their psychology.

Those deep-closing sprinters should be able to run faster times if they didn't cover the first quarter so slowly. But when niggled at early to run more even fractions, some do worse.

And others who blitz off and finish weakly ought to do better when their speed is rationed, but some of them never do. It's not lack of stamina, as many prove better suited to longer races in due course.

At a steadier early pace, they appear more composed, race more evenly and finish with more determination. It all just seems more consistent with the type of thing O'Brien was describing; that they are willing to run harder because the different tempo suits them psychologically.

Next time, I will tell you why I believe that there is a distribution of acceptable pace around the ideal which is directly driven by the peculiar needs of each horse within the population.

Plus, I will outline why it is vital to make a differentiation between psychological and physical when interpreting sectional times. Their confusion can lead to different conclusions and is vital to proper race-reading, even for those with no access to the numbers.