Is racing ready for a Moneyball revolution? In one of the smartest books ever, author Michael Lewis describes how the game of baseball was changed by quantitative analysis. By exploiting inefficiencies created by the narrow focus of traditional beliefs, the Oakland A’s overcame teams with much bigger payrolls. Eventually, of course, the defeated assumed the superior approach themselves.
The message of Moneyball is both profound and universal: any decision-making process which can be quantified can be improved. Getting better starts with doing things differently because the numbers tell you they are better.
Designing mating plans; sourcing yearling talent; maximising prize-money expectation. All these are done with some degree of irrationality.
Quantitative analysis can never replace intuition totally; that was not the lesson of Moneyball. Scouts who ran their eye over a prospect – like agents inspecting yearlings – had knowledge of calculable value itself.
At the heart of refining operating procedure is improved information. It is the same process that informs business analysis, except applied to areas which are usually considered to be outside its reach. Then, those of experience can make better decisions.
There are those of impressive acumen already thriving in racing. They might come to it from other worlds; they might exist already within it and run sizeable breeding or training operations or agencies.
But, what can you do with the desire to get better yet with a disadvantage of resources?
What you can’t do is afford to play the game the same way as the behemoths. Take a leaf out of David’s book: exploit the areas which Goliath can usually afford to overlook. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but at least I now have a better feel for the questions – thanks to trainer Ed Dunlop and bloodstock agent Charlie Gordon-Watson at the recent Craven Breeze-up Sale in Newmarket.
“Tell me how you would do things differently, genius,” Ed said to me with mock provocation. “How could I prepare better?”
The horse as a physical entity is a mystery to me, but I tried to understand the approach of those who do know what they are doing. I saw how trainers and agents inspect a horse; I talked to vendors, consignors, breeders and purchasers to improve my sense of how the bloodstock market operates.
Before the sale, I analysed the pedigrees of the 196 lots and the record of its graduates. The most the numbers allow is to assess the chance of an entrant reaching a 100 rating. Through techniques like logistic regression which are the staple of economics, I learned the importance of the consignor, the sire, the record of the first three dams and the foaling date.
To this, I added the sectional times from every breeze, refined by rider effort on a scale of 1-5. I also made note of temperament and action.
In turn, I found how trainer and agent meet the needs of a potential client; how the concept of value is relative to each individual for whom they are acting. It was at once bewildering, exciting and maddening to understand the motivations of each link of the chain.
The prices paid for yearlings means every one has a negative expectation – but some are more negative than others. It is easy to see how an owner can improve their chances, but a significant investment is still required to subjugate chance. Otherwise, you are just back to a horse and a dream.
So, to answer my own question: I am not sure the Moneyball revolution will ever come. To be the Oakland A’s of racing requires the strength of purpose to defy conventional wisdom – a powerful force within a sport founded on received wisdom.
Those in a stronger position will doubt you and undermine the confidence of your clients. And they have the strength in numbers which would appear to justify the orthodox approach.
At first, the A’s found it hard to silence the doubters. Perhaps it is more difficult still in this great game of ours.
Professor stands tallest among the National defenders
If there was any shaft of light amid the gloom of the Grand National deaths, it was provided by Professor Tim Morris, the BHA’s Director of Equine Science and Welfare.
The Prof’s contribution to the ensuing ethical debate confirmed the importance to racing of executives not just capable of rigorous analysis, but of eloquent expression and reasonable debate. For what it is worth, everyone within my own peer group in the media has been impressed by him.
What frustrates is that some of those perceived as capable of leadership do not appear to understand the difference between subjective and objective expression. Framing an argument entirely with the prism of your own self-interest – no matter how persistently – does not constitute a worthy contribution.
Whether Morris has pretensions for a more central role, or indeed whether he has the full range of capabilities necessary for leadership, is beyond me to know. All I am saying is that the thinking man now has a most exciting candidate to get behind.
Sadly, there are many within racing incapable of constructing an ethical defence for it, one which depends on accepting racehorse death as an inevitable consequence. The excellent standards of welfare maintained by racing professionals off the course say a lot, but they can do little to protect against charges made on the basis of death-rates on it.
Racing has a lot to be proud of in the research it has commissioned for the benefit of equines in general – and a lot for which to be thankful that The Prof is associated with it.