Moneyball and the 2 Year Old in Training Sales
The concepts found in ‘Moneyball’ can transform the 2 year old in training sales and greatly increase ROI for auction buyers. I have written and rewritten this post a half a dozen times – ranging from a 5,000 word opus down to just the main bullet points, so this piece may seem to be a bit scatterbrained, and I apologize in advance.
The central premise of Moneyball states that the collected experience of baseball insiders is, by nature, subjective, and therefore flawed in some respects. Rigorous analysis resulted in the creation of new statistics that better defined a valuable player via objective means, and this often flew in the face of conventional ‘wisdom’. The Oakland A’s under Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt in the movie version) ignored common statistical measures of success such as batting average and stolen bases, and found that numbers such as on base percentage and slugging percentage were more closely tied to wins. This concept led to the identification of undervalued talent, and the Oakland franchise repeatedly won as many games as the top spenders, such as the New York Yankees, despite a payroll at the bottom of the league. (Oakland spent approx. $40 million while the Yankees spent over $130 million in any given season)
It’s fairly easy to parallel this concept to the thoroughbred business, we even have a single word defining purely subjective means of evaluating talent: horsemanship.
For decades, auction buyers have used bloodstock agents and trainers to purchase racing stock at both yearling and 2yo sales around the country. Until recently, there has been very little science/technology involved in these decisions – so how has pure horsemanship fared in selecting the game’s future stars?
(Data table taken from ‘Thoroughbred Auctions: Analyzing ROI in Yearling and Two Years Olds in Training Sales’, a study authored by J.J. Risego, Preston Guilmet, and Matt Carter – three students of the University of Arizona Racetrack Industry Program. ROI, or return on investment, was calculated using racetrack earnings from the careers of auction purchases at several major sales vs. the purchase price and training costs, which were estimated at $25k per year. No residual stud values were factored into the equation, so a few ‘home run horses’ could have improved the ROI factors by a fractional amount.)
Not so good.
If you believe that horses are mythical creatures that don’t obey the laws of exercise science and that a negative 70% ROI is the best possible result from selecting potential racing stock at such an early age – save your time and stop reading this blog. You are not my target audience and you will only get angry at what follows because it is threatening to your core beliefs. In Moneyball terms, you are ex-player turned broadcaster Joe Morgan, the most vocal opponent of the Moneyball concepts – even though he has admittedly never read the book. Is it any wonder that when he was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds that the website www.firejoemorgan.com was formed? What a blockhead – publicly lambasting a book which he never took the time to read, but sadly Mr. Morgan’s behavior is indicative of the baseball establishment’s feelings.
So, what is overvalued when it comes to future thoroughbred racing success? Pedigree and subjective opinions of quality based on horsemanship are the main culprits.
At the yearling sales most of what is used to influence the buying decision is pedigree, the walk, and the overall subjective appearance of the young colt or filly in question. At least, that was the case before 2005 when this data was compiled. Since then, more objective scientific means have come upon the scene: heart size and gait/biomechanical analysis. But, each of them has a significant hole as well.
HEART SIZE, OR HEART SCORE
Here is the formula that heart size practicioners rely on: cardiac output equals heart rate times stroke volume, or CO = HR X SV.
Stroke volume is further defined as the size of the left ventricle times the amount of blood pumped with each beat, or ejection fraction: SV = LV X EF. Consequently, the amount of blood available to provide aerobic energy (CO) is the product of HR, LV, and EF. This is neither a Thoroedge formula, nor a horse racing one: this is page one of any exercise physiology textbook and it applies to horses, humans, camels, greyhounds, rats, etc. It is science, it is fact, and it is not open to interpretation.
LV and EF are quantified at rest, but no one ever measures HR during exercise! That is but one reason why you can have a huge heart in a terrible runner. Experience tells me that as many as 15% of the offspring of our top US stallions and accomplished racemares have maximum HR values of just 205bpm, well below the average of 230bpm. No horse can overcome this 10% deficiency in CO. Here is the key: you can measure LV and EF at rest, therefore you can theoretically cover all 4000 yearlings at the KEE sales, but you cannot get maximal HR in a yearling at a walk or jog. However you can get maximal HR in a 2yo who is actively training for a breeze up sale. More on this shortly….
For our terms, we’ll refer to biomechanics as simply conformation: a set of measurements/angles of a horse at rest. Problem number one is the ‘at rest’ state. No numbers taken at rest are going to be hugely predictive of athleticism at 35+mph. Some will, but many won’t. Gait analysis solves this problem at the 2yo sales by analyzing many of the same concepts, but during race speeds. Excellent improvement, but still we are looking at the outside of the horse and quantifying efficiency of movement – yet we leave out the intensity of effort, which is the other 50% of the equation. We need more useful data and in 2011 it is available to us, albeit with some extra effort.
The overall concept behind Thoroedge: anything that happens of importance in a horse, happens during gallops and breezes. Moneyball was quick to point out that selecting a baseball prospect in high school was much more likely to result in failure than selecting a college ballplayer. Likewise, it would seem that the thoroughbred 2yo sales would give us better ROI numbers than the yearling auctions, however the chart above proved that to not be the case. Heart size and gait analysis are very much on the right track – but the missing pieces of info from these methods can be available to us at the 2yo in training sales.
CREATE YOUR OWN STATISTICS
Like the Oakland As, we must create our own statistics to maximize ROI and here they are: Maximum Heart Rate, V200 and Heart Rate Recovery.
All of these numbers are captured during the conditioning process for a 2yo headed to the in-training sales via onboard HR/GPS equipment, but not necessarily on the day of the public breeze itself.
Maximum HR is genetic and is unaffected by training. The average for thoroughbreds is 230bpm, and I have seen many successful runners worldwide with max HR values as low as 215bpm – but none with a number of 205bpm, those rarely even make it to the track in one piece as every step they take on the track requires 10% more effort. This number is what I call a ‘low hurdle’; just passing this test with a number of 225bpm or so doesn’t guarantee success by any means, but failing this test does guarantee failure. As a matter of fact, any horse with a max HR of 205bpm or lower isn’t even subjected to the following two measures of athleticism, as he belongs in an equestrian event rather than a thoroughbred race.
Once we know maximum HR, we can calculate V200: velocity of gallop at a HR of 200bpm, which on average is 85% of maximum. Todd Pletcher and a few others unknowingly call this ‘cruising speed’, and they are right on target. Heart size alone is meaningless for our purposes, what I want to know is how much work that heart can fuel – and I don’t need 20 years of data and a massive sample size to understand that ‘faster is better’ when intensity of effort is controlled for. Poorly conformed horses will often have a poor V200 unless some other factor makes up for the deficiency. Even very well put together horses will suffer with respect to V200 if any other factors are lacking such as: capillary density, mitochondrial density, poor neuromuscular control, oxygen levels in blood, respiratory difficulties, etc. I am not a vet, and I don’t know what is right or wrong with a horse, but quantifying how the whole system performs is well within my wheelhouse.
Here is V200 data I have compiled over the years in horses actively campaigning in the US over dirt:
<20mph can’t win, likely unsound or simply unathletic
22-24mph not likely to hit the board, but in the ballpark
25-27mph $25k claimer at lesser circuits, maiden winner at KEE or CD
27-30mph allowance level up to state bred stake
30-32mph getting closer, possible G3 black type if placed correctly
>32mph graded stakes athlete, 35mph is your superstar
Horses derive energy in a race from mainly two systems: aerobic and anaerobic. V200 measures aerobic efficiency by collecting HR and speed data during a routine morning gallop around 2:15-3:15 min/mile pace. When they start to breeze and use anaerobic energy in the absence of oxygen, well then we need this last measure of ability/performance…
Heart Rate Recovery data is collected once the horse hits the wire after a breeze and begins the gallop out process. During this time the heart rate will drop precipitously from the maximum HR achieved during a piece of fast work like a 10-12sec furlong. Ideally heart rate will be 120bpm after 2min of passing the finish post, and 80bpm another 3min later. That would be 100% recovery and is a home run for a 2yo in the midst of an aggressive conditioning regimen.
Take two runners at a breeze-up sale. One works an eighth in 10 flat, while another comes across the line in 11 seconds. The faster of the two may show a recovery HR of just 62%, while the ‘slower’ one exhibits a 91% recovery. This is significant. As the old saying goes: ‘It’s not how fast they go, but how they go fast’ – and this is what that maxim looks like in actual numbers. Speed is overvalued in these instances, whereas stamina is a relative bargain. Neither of these horses is ever going to run a 10sec furlong again, and even the fastest horses are only at peak speed for a few strides in any race. Stamina wins races (even at 6F) and is often overlooked at auction, giving us a prime buying opportunity IF we can collect the data from inside the animal in question.
**To emphasize: we are not looking at the potential of stamina in a pedigree, we are gauging the actual presence of stamina during track exercise – big, big difference.
Beyer speed figures, the Ragozin sheets, Thorograph, etc. are all statistics put out to help handicappers pick winners. Sometimes they work well, sometimes they don’t, but they all share the same flaw: they only quantify workload, not intensity of effort from each individual horse. Too many in this industry have been overwhelmed by numbers purporting to define class or ability that don’t come from inside the actual horses in question. This reminds me of another old horseman’s saying: ‘People have opinions, horses have the facts’ – so very true. D. Wayne Lukas I believe is the originator of the phrase?
Both of these old sayings prove that horsemen and women have been considering the scientific side of the sport for decades, albeit unwittingly. I intend to bring these concepts to the forefront. Science and technology has vastly improved many facets of the industry over the past few decades – pretty much everything but equine selection and conditioning – and that is an oversight we can use to gain an advantage in today’s marketplace.
Look, pedigree is merely potential on paper – once the foal hits the ground, we can now measure whether or not the preferred genetic traits are being expressed in terms of actual performance. Pedigree doesn’t matter again until one hits the breeding shed after retirement. Both baseball and horse racing are rooted in tradition, but there has now been proven to be new knowledge available to baseballers, and there is also new horseracing knowledge as well.
In conclusion, I leave you with this quote directly from Moneyball – where you can substitute ‘horseracing’ for each reference to ‘baseball’:
“When you think of intellectuals influencing the course of human affairs you think of physics, or political theory, or economics. You don’t think of baseball, because you don’t think of baseball as having an intellectual underpinning. But it does; it had just never been seriously observed and closely questioned, in a writing style sufficiently compelling to catch the attention of the people who actually played baseball. Once it had been, it was only a matter of time—a long time—before some man of action seized on newly revealed truths to gain a competitive advantage.”