The subtitle "World Championships" attached to the Breeders’ Cup meeting in the U.S. has long been the source of irritation elsewhere in the racing world. It is not just seen as being representative of a parochial attitude associated with the outlook of many Americans, but is also increasingly seen as misrepresentative of the quality of the racing.
For years, I have attempted to defend what is clearly hyperbole on the basis that a) it doesn’t do much harm and there are other things to worry about, and b) you could argue that the races on dirt in previous generations actually were the best in the world regularly enough to justify this billing.
Not any more. For what was, in effect, a harmless water-cooler argument can now be seen as causing a misapprehension about the whole nature of how champions are determined in Thoroughbred racing in the light of the latest Breeders’ Cup Classic - a highly entertaining race with a controversial denouement. (The outrageous decision made by the stewards to let Bayern keep the win has been covered by this site’s publisher, Charles Hayward.)
Suffice to say, Shared Belief remains the best horse to have taken part in the 2014 Classic, and if he isn’t recognised as such in post-season awards it will be an injustice. The likelihood that he won’t is the subject of this column, for it involves the notion that horse racing can ever truly stage a day of championships, as suggested by the title of the Breeders’ Cup.
It’s my belief as a handicapper – though obviously not a shared belief with the stewarding panel of the Breeders’ Cup – that Bayern isn’t, wasn’t and never will be the best horse to have contested the 2014 Classic.
As things stand, Shared Belief’s earlier form – notably his G1 Awesome Again performance in September – is clearly better than Bayern’s narrow Classic in favourable circumstances. Racing Post Ratings peg Shared Belief’s best rating at 128 compared with Bayern’s 124, while California Chrome can already be considered a better horse on Triple Crown exploits.
If Bayern goes down in history as Horse of the Year and receives an Eclipse award, he is a phoney champion. And we should care about that as much as many care that baseball writers choose the right MVP or the most deserving Cy Young winner.
Contrary to the concept that the Breeders’ Cup is a "World Championship," we should very much care that championship titles in horse racing are not determined by any one race. We use the objective framework of ratings in horse racing as a means of understanding that the quality of a performance is not pre-determined a priori by the title of the race but by a post-hoc analysis of its absolute merit.
One of the most important ambitions of top-class Thoroughbred racing is to determine the best horses for breeding purposes. It is downright ridiculous to think that any one race can determine this better than a sequence. Would you test the fairness of a die by rolling it once?
In 2014, the era of Big Data, we know enough about cause and effect in the world to understand the importance of sample size: to evaluate any so-called random variable (anything that can vary, such as the performance of a horse) we perform repeated trials and consider the evidence in totality.
Imagine if a data scientist constructed a win probability model in the way that is now common in many sports. Before the race, Shared Belief would have a higher probability of winning (he started as the 5-to-2 favourite compared with 7-to-1 Bayern) but the moment after he was hampered by Bayern his win probability would be lower. Given that there is no dispute that Bayern was the cause of the interference to Shared Belief, this should be enough to conclude that the result of the race is unlikely to represent a fair reflection between the two horses.
If it is considered politically correct to bias post-season honours like the Eclipse Awards to Breeders’ Cup winners, then politics - and the politicians who cherish them - should hang. If all other things about Bayern and Shared Belief were equal – such as their pedigrees and conformation – a breeder (not to mention a handicapper) should much prefer Shared Belief’s resume to that of Bayern. And, when you take into account that it was Bayern himself who wiped out Shared Belief at the start of the Classic, it seems a particular injustice that the inferior horse on the balance of the evidence might be confused as being the champion of his generation – as suggested in Andrew Beyer’s column here.
If Bayern met Shared Belief again, odds makers, such as Coral in the UK, would favour the latter because it likely that he is the better horse (Coral chief odds maker James Knight has confirmed as much to me). And that reflects an important aspect of how championships should be awarded in horse racing: with a probabilistic (taking all the evidence into account and articulating the greatest likelihood) rather than deterministic (believing that a single event can confer an immutable truth) mindset.
The self-determined "World Championship" monicker of the Breeders’ Cup is sending the wrong message – but not just for the reasons many in Europe assert. It might be harmless to proclaim Bayern as winner of the so-called World Championship but it is non-scientific to use this as the basis for asserting he deserves to be regarded as Horse of the Year.
Hopefully, one or more of the protagonists might meet in the Dubai World Cup. If so, I will be temporarily happy to recant that switching the Meydan surface back from Tapeta to dirt was a mistake. Injustice always deserves a sequel.