THE AMERICAN BIAS AGAINST FILLIES & MARES

The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp Racecourse is arguably the most prestigious horse race in Europe.  The 2018 renewal on October 7th saw Enable, a 4-year-old filly, win the race, by a short neck, for the second consecutive year.  The 3-year-old filly Sea of Class was a fast-closing second.  Thus in a field of 19 horses that were overwhelmingly of the male gender, the two females prevailed.

European-based fillies and mares have often come to North America and competed successfully in Grade 1 turf races against male horses.  Goldikova, for example, won the Breeders’ Cup Mile three years in a row and Found and Peebles both won the grueling 1 ½ mile Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Why is it that European-trained fillies and mares are routinely entered in the biggest open stakes races, whereas North American-trained fillies and mares normally run against their own gender?  Opinions may diverge on this question, but here is my take…it is cultural:  American trainers are inculcated by their mentors and tradition with the idea that fillies and mares should almost always run against their own gender.

Unlike their European counterparts, North American trainers mostly adhere to conventional thinking when it comes to entering fillies and mares in open races.  Wins by Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby, Rags to Riches in the Belmont, Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward, and Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic are exceptions that prove the rule.

In addition to cultural predilections, the present-day point system for qualifying for the Kentucky Derby is not conducive to fillies obtaining enough points.  A filly that dominates in gender-restricted races earns no points.  Prior to the point system, a trainer of a late-developing filly could take a shot at the Kentucky Derby instead of the Kentucky Oaks.  That is no longer possible unless the filly has won one or more 3-year-old stakes races against open company.

In the upcoming Breeders’ Cup races at Churchill Downs, it is all but certain that fillies and mares will run in the Breeders’ Cup (turf) Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Turf.  Most or all of them will hail from Europe, and Enable, the 2017 and 2018 Arc winner, will likely be among them.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business

HIGH-PROFILE BREAKDOWNS

James E. “Ted” Bassett III was president of the Breeders’ Cup when a gruesome fatal breakdown occurred in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.  Go for Wand broke her right front ankle during a stretch duel with the ultimate winner Bayakoa.  Mr. Bassett was watching the race with Ron McAnally, Bayakoa’s trainer, from a clubhouse box.  In Mr. Bassett’s autobiography he described the confusion and finger-pointing in the immediate aftermath:  “The crowd was in a state of hysteria.  Martha Gerry, a very prominent Thoroughbred breeder and owner, came up to Ron and angrily shouted in his face (as though it was somehow his fault), ‘I’ll never attend the races again!’  Ron began to shake and I told him, ‘Take it easy,’ and then I escorted him to the winner’s circle.  By the time we got there, Ron was in tears.  He was besieged by a hoard of media members firing questions at him, against a backdrop of shrieks of hysteria from the crowd.”

Episodes of athletes being severely injured or even killed sear into people’s memory and can affect their attitude toward a sport, whether it be horse racing, automobile racing, football, or any other high-risk competition.  I’ve heard countless parents say they will discourage or forbid their boys from playing football, owing to news of football-caused deaths and the scientific evidence about brain injuries.

A woman recently wrote me that she forever turned against horse racing in the wake of the injury to Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness.  I recall watching the incident on television with a small group of friends and one of the guests said “I think I’ll find something else to bet on.”  Another acquaintance told me of how shaken his friends were after going to the races for the first time ever at Keeneland and observing a fatal breakdown.

Extensively publicized breakdowns like Go for Wand and Barbaro are almost impossible for racing insiders to respond to effectively because of what psychologists refer to as availability bias.  Availability is one of many cognitive biases that impede critical thinking.  According to behavioraleconomics.com “Availability is a heuristic [mental shortcut] whereby people make judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance, or case comes to mind.  For example, investors may judge the quality of an investment based on information that was recently in the news, ignoring other relevant facts.  Similarly, it has been shown that individuals with a greater ability to recall antidepressant advertising estimate the prevalence of depression to be higher than those with low recall.”

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness have rarely had breakdowns, much less fatalities, in their nearly 150-year existence.  Yet people are apt to overestimate the frequency of racing-related breakdowns when they mentally shortcut to Eight Belles falling just beyond the finish line in the 2008 Kentucky Derby or to Barbaro’s injury at the start of the Preakness.  And the emotion evoked by the sight of a breakdown swamps the sterility of facts, regardless of what the facts show.  Misperceptions are reinforced by the confirmation bias, as explained by Psychology Today: “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.”

The Equine Injury Database provides empirical evidence that American horse racing has made great progress in racetrack safety since breakdown statistics were first published in 2009.  But owing to the availability bias, hard facts won’t matter much next time there is a fatal breakdown in the midst of a high-profile race.  While racetracks and the racing industry per se need a contingency plan in order to be proactive in responding, availability theory tell us they will be up against strong emotions.  Their narrative should be fact-based but also must be crafted in a caring and emotional way.  It is not enough to say “That’s just part of horse racing” or to rely mostly on statistics about how racing has made substantial gains in the safety of its equine athletes.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business

A RACEHORSE ROCKY BALBOA EMERGES FROM PHILLY

The 2018 Jockey Club Gold Cup was a heart-warming illustration of why horse racing is such an egalitarian sport.  Regardless of a horse’s pedigree or the pedigrees and accomplishments of who owns and trains the animal, the horse has to prove merit on the racetrack.

The two most powerful racing stables on the planet, Godolphin and Coolmore, sent out impeccably-bred entries in the Gold Cup—Thunder Snow and Mendelssohn—who finished second and third, respectively.  Yet the winner was Discreet Lover, a 45-1 shot owned and trained by Parx-based Uriah St. Lewis, who acquired the 5-year-old horse for $10,000 at a 2-year-old in training sale.

The 60-year-old St. Lewis was born in Trinidad and emigrated to the United States in 1973 when he was a teenager.  After employment with AmTote International as a computer specialist, he decided to be a horse trainer and worked and learned from a trainer who raced at several tracks in the Midwest and Southwest.  Mr. St. Lewis got his training license in 1988 and eventually came to Parx near Philadelphia.  Today, most of the horses he trains he also owns.

Discreet Lover was sired by Repent, who stood at stud in Florida for $3,000 before being sold and shipped to Trinidad.  Repent had career earnings of $1.2 million.  Discreet Lover’s dam is an unraced mare by Discreet Cat.

Discreet Lover has had 44 starts with 7 wins, 7 seconds, and 7 thirds.  The Jockey Club Gold Cup was his first Grade I win and the same holds true for his owner/trainer.  The winner’s share of the Gold Cup was $450,000 and Mr. St. Lewis said he also bet $100 across the board on his horse.

The fictional club fighter Rocky Balboa rose from obscurity in South Philly to shock big-time boxing.  The Philadelphia duo of Uriah St. Lewis and Discreet Lover are real-life Rocky-like characters from the world of horse racing and the best underdog story since Mine That Bird came out of New Mexico to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of whether Discreet Lover ever wins another race, he will be remembered for the 2018 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the day he took down blueblood horses owned by a Mideast ruler and an Irish magnate.

Copyright © 2018 Horse Racing Business