Poor Irish Champion ride on Australia a valuable lesson for Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O'Brien steers Australia wide in the Irish Champion Stakes. Photo: RacingFotos.com

It is a matter of simple geometry to understand that Australia should have won the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on Saturday. Jockeyship is shrouded with mystique (like many things in racing that have a rational explanation), but attempting to describe the shortest path with the least variation in speed is surely the largest part of it, yet the least adhered to in many post-race analyses.

Joseph O’Brien’s ride on the horse his father Aidan O’Brien trains for the Coolmore partners was as poor as his masterpiece on Leading Light in the Gold Cup at Ascot in June was good. The mere fact of Australia’s defeat should not tarnish the colt’s standing one iota. And it should be a valuable step in his jockey’s path to reach the same level as the winning rider Ryan Moore.

Although calculating the distance of ground Australia lost during his neck defeat by The Grey Gatsby requires precise tracking and calculus, it can readily be assumed using mathematical knowledge of which the average 13-year-old should be capable.

The circumference of a circle is 2πr (where π ≈ 3 and r is the radius), so the semi-circle described by a horse turning out of the back straight at Leopardstown gets longer by a factor of three (2 x π divided by 2) times the number of lengths a horse is out on the turn. Assuming a horse-width (the measure most easily estimated visually) is about a third of a length and as Australia was six horses wide, he lost about four lengths compared with The Grey Gatsby, whom he had beaten by an easy two lengths in the Juddmonte International at York the time before. This magnitude of error is corroborated by examples on other tracks in which tracking is available.

The disadvantage of running wide is often greater than merely the ground lost, however. The second important aspect of jockeyship is the control of a horse’s speed. Allowing for topographical features of the track, a rider should try to maintain constant speed – or rather constant effort from his horse – because there is a dependency between this and efficient energy use that should be obvious to anyone who drives a car. Increase your speed above 56 miles per hour and your fuel efficiency begins to decrease exponentially. So, if a horse accelerates into a turn while running wide, so much the worse.

Beyond the physical realities of what caused – and who was to blame – for Australia’s defeat is an interesting dynamic within the world’s most powerful racing and breeding operation at Ballydoyle/Coolmore.

Aidan O’Brien feels some in the sport are “jumping on the bandwagon” in looking to unfairly chastise his son when he makes mistakes. There’s no doubt he has a point, in general, but protecting Joseph from unfair detractors concurrent with dispensing the critical analysis required after a race like the Irish Champion must be a delicate balance for the trainer to maintain within the organization. This is especially true with Ryan Moore – who himself has an association with Ballydoyle – reaching a level not seen in Britain since Kieran Fallon’s pomp of a decade ago.

(Fallon’s ride on Kris Kin in the 2003 Derby at Epsom exemplifies the now-49-year-old’s amazing ability to process visual information and make rapid-fire decisions with a low error rate – and he will talk to you all day about ground-loss and regulation of speed.)

Every jockey – like every sportsman – makes mistakes. If horses are to be retired to stud as hastily as Australia, then mistakes can be costly. However, Australia’s reputation should really only grow as a result of his defeat, because his average speed (defined by distance travelled divided by time taken) was much the highest within the confines of the Irish Champion, and that is what we mean by racehorse merit.

O’Brien is only 21 and has made rapid strides as a rider because he has received rare opportunity. The faith his father has placed in him will be rewarded, so long as the rider accepts his mistakes are mistakes and the signs are good. Joseph told the Racing Post: “It’s a pity to ride a horse like Australia and not make the most of him on every occasion; you live and learn.”

There is a tendency for people to make projections about a jockey’s worth from a small number of rides that stick in the memory. This tendency - known as the availability bias - amounts to one of the most common and egregious errors in analysis. Differences between the merits of jockeys, as opposed to the quality of horses they partner, are strictly long-run effects. A longitudinal study of results, such as the one I carried out earlier this year, are necessary before any serious conclusions can be drawn.

Books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blinkand Matthew Syed’s Bouncehave brought to popular culture a concept known for decades in psychology: Many of our supposed human gifts and talents are the result of iteration (doing something repeatedly and learning from the mistakes). Natural ability for disciplines does exist, but it can be overwhelmed by the empirical benefits of trying and failing. (It remains highly irrational to assert that an apprentice rider receiving a weight allowance can be labelled a future champion.)

You simply cannot get better without getting it wrong, and Joseph O’Brien’s mistakes – probably less numerous than many in his position – tend to be played out in high-leverage situations (errors are magnified by the pivot of importance). The important point for the analyst is not a vain attempt to intuit some static measure of his ability as a rider, but to discern the outward signs of whether the setback has empowered a more efficient approach.

In the 400-metre race for humans, the athlete in the outside lane of eight receives more than 50 metres start from the inside runner to compensate for having to stay so wide through the race. Think of that – better than 12 percent of the distance of the race. A jockey can control the lane he runs in to a large extent (there is a trade-off with increasing the chance of trouble-in-running), and if he charts a course as extreme as O’Brien in the Irish Champion, he has made one of the biggest mistakes possible.  

What might have happened had he stayed on the inside or why the jockey raced wide are aspects that cloud clear analysis of the situation. Sure, conjecture about those things is reasonable, but it must be remembered that the expected value of any strategy is the payoff multiplied by the probability. By running wide, O’Brien and Australia certainly lost ground; had the rider tried something else, there might have also been a disadvantageous result.

There’s only one Ryan Moore, and in the competitive arena of modern sport, his understanding of the cause-and-effect of winning – for that is the biggest part of what makes him so good – is a significant edge for those who employ him. Joseph O’Brien will close the gap, for sure, but only if he remembers that the very act of running wide is usually a huge blunder – irrespective of the earlier circumstances of the race.

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