Five hot takes on the Kentucky Derby
1. Nyquist is a seriously fast horse
Nyquist was never far behind splits for each quarter-mile of 22.58-23.14-24.68-25.21-25.70. He is a speed horse who lasts out 10f well enough to run 2:01.31 on a fast track. This time would win most renewals of the Kentucky Derby nowadays, and in this one it saw him and late-running Exaggerator pull well clear.
This uneven distribution of energy immediately provoked the theory that he has the ability to run a faster final time, granted the chance to go slower early and hence run more evenly.
But this is a one-size-fits-all analysis and is valid only if Nyquist can be geared down without him pulling too hard. When a horse is running well within his stamina capabilities, it is almost always true that even pace produces optimal time for the distance, but it is dangerous to make those same projections when a horse has a surfeit of speed.
Often a horse’s fractions are merely a signature of the balance between speed and stamina in his athleticism. If a rider tries to go slower, the horse just pulls harder and the energy saved early is not available late.
2. The danger of not seeing the Funny Cide
Is another Triple Crown winner on the cards?
Others have observed that Nyquist’s profile of split times is similar to that of 2003 winner Funny Cide, who attended a 22.78-23.45-24.25-25.27-25.44 pace and ran 2:01.19. But, look closely: Funny Cide was used harder in the middle of the race and finished faster. Yet, the latter patently failed to stay a mile and a half in the Belmont Stakes, in which Derby runner-up Empire Maker reversed the form.
History could well repeat itself: Nyquist really should bolt up in the face of a greater test of speed at Pimlico, but I will be betting against him enthusiastically at Belmont.
3. Track bias analysis is highly subjective
It cannot be that Nyquist deserves extra credit for being used up in the pace while runner-up Exaggerator also deserves extra credit for making up ground on a track biased towards front-runners: the two are mutually exclusive.
If the track truly favoured speed, then Nyquist had the ideal profile and Exaggerator should be capable of reversing the form; if, by contrast, the pace counted against front runners, then Exaggerator – who lagged far behind early – was flattered by his proximity to Nyquist and has seemingly has no shot to reverse placings on a “fair” track (whatever that is).
Yet, different experts on U.S. racing advanced both ideas simultaneously. All this leads to is confusion.
In most cases, it is better to place the greatest weight on the effect of pace as the prime cause of horses running a different race from that expected. At least there are various physical laws underpinning these projections.
But, a great deal more care must be taken over the assumption that a track favours speed. A horse’s early pace and its overall merit is highly correlated on dirt, whatever the presupposed emphasis of the track. If a horse is faster over 10 furlongs than its opponents, it is likely it would beat most of them over a single furlong too.
Nyquist won because he lasted out 10 furlongs well enough to defeat a horse in Exaggerator who finished strongly because his individual fractions vary less. But, even with this advantage, he could not catch the winner. It’s not much more complicated than that, really.
It is understandable that experts make these second-level projections on track bias and pace, because that’s what experts do. But, good science is to start with the most obvious explanation and allows more subjective evidence to be included only with great care.
4. The ‘American Pharoah’ effect is thoroughly exposed
So, it turns out that ratings for the NBC telecast – shown live in the U.K. and Ireland by At The Races (Sky channel 415) – were down 14 percent. The usual reasons about competition from other sports has been cited, but the truth is that the notion that racing would grow any extra long-term following from a Triple Crown winner was a spurious conceit in the first place.
It would be hardly surprising if sports fans found prolonged exposure to NBC’s Derby coverage hard to stomach. Save for a superficial take on Kent Desormeaux’s problems, the broadcast now seems nowhere near the brilliant quality of a decade ago, when we first had access to the live feed in Britain.
The channel now gives time formerly spent on the horses, horsemen, horsewomen and owners towards the effort to inveigle viewers into watching who have only a scant interest in the sport, but who find celebrity culture irresistible.
Celebrity fandom in sport can certainly work. Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee know their basketball, for instance, and their inclusion in coverage of the NBA finals adds to the lustre of the event – but only because it is credible that they really care about the fortunes of the Lakers and the Knicks. Okay, so movie stars behind the home plate at Yankees games may be there for reasons other than wondering if Luis Severino can regain control of his fastball, but in many cases celebrity fans are no less informed than average Joe.
By contrast, it is simply inane to hear that some TV starlet is picking a 50-1 shot because he or she likes the name. Come on. This is just rubbish television. It is not just a matter of what you find interesting, it comes off as just too easy to produce without effort or creative intelligence.
The sad thing is that the airtime taken up by this pointless meandering used to be given to a whole host of features about the participants that led to many viewers here becoming in awe of NBC’s earlier broadcasts.
5. That joke isn’t funny anymore
The kind of analytical slant that now is heavily featured on television in many sports is not everyone’s cup of tea. Fair play. Nobody, however technically minded, should have a problem with this as a choice. It’s a lifestyle choice for many to prefer ‘feel’ over measurement, instinct over studied appraisal.
However, the comments of trainer Dale Romans that “speed figures have become one of the biggest jokes in racing” is typical of the kind of rant made by racing’s traditional reserve.
Speed figures are nothing more than one staple measure of performance. They are not a threat to a different view of the world. The race is to the swift, and figures merely convert running times over different distances and on different surfaces onto a familiar scale that should prevent a lot of subjective waffling and nonsense.
Horses often break track records largely because the track is superfast, rather than the horse. Speed figures are there to stop us making a kindergarten error in confusing the two.
Okay, I agree that figures that take ground-loss, weight and even pace into account lose this advantage, and often lead us to descend into an exercise in playing with numbers. But, there is an appetite for them commercially because they have value to the horseplayer.
Speed figures merely put race times in their proper context. That’s all. They are not a panacea for all handicapping woes, but neither are they “a joke”.
Why does this running battle have to be waged? If a horse has run slow, it doesn’t make it a slow horse, only a slow performance. Speed figures don’t pretend to capture everything about a racehorse. They contain inevitable measurement error; they vary between operators according to that operator’s interpretation of the speed of the track; they are a knowingly one-dimensional abstraction of merit. Surely we can be grown-up about this.
You could teach school children to make speed figures without ever once straying from mainstream academic principles.
After one lesson, they would get it well enough to see the error of traditional thinking about time. After a few more lessons, they would start to learn about classical physics, biology, entropy, statistical inference, randomness, chaos, and many other things besides that are sparked by curiosity about the wonder of the equine athlete.
Speed figures offer a way into the sport for many people mathematically inclined, not privileged to own or train horses or who don’t care to speak the code of racing’s insiders or who trust all their received wisdom. They are for people who want to learn additional awe for great horses via computation, not via visuals, instinct and emotion, which certainly have merit but can be flawed.
They are definitely not “a joke”, Mr Romans.