The NFL draft is a widely anticipated rite-of-spring by fans of the 32 teams; it is one of the most overanalyzed events in the United States, with mock draft after mock draft.  The 2014 movie Draft Day–starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner as the general manager and salary-cap specialist, respectively, of the Cleveland Browns–depicted the scheming and behind-the-scenes pressures that transpire.

This year’s National Football League draft, with all its hoopla, is Thursday through Saturday, May 8-10.  The evaluation process of college players preceding the draft has a lot in common with selecting future racehorses.

College players are put through extensive pre-draft evaluations, including measurement of height and weight, speed, jumping ability, and other metrics deemed to be necessary for a particular position, such as hand size for quarterbacks.  Candidates are also subjected to interviews with coaches and the Wonderlich test.  Hot prospects have pro days in which they perform for coaches and general managers.

The horse-racing versions of the NFL draft are the premier auctions of select yearlings and 2-year-olds.  Bloodstock agents and buyers size up prospects for conformation and stride and subject them to various physical tests to check on bone health and breathing capacity.

Some two-year-old Thoroughbreds have their pro days by running an eighth of a mile as fast as possible.  What is the great unknown is how fast a Thoroughbred will run in actual competition at longer distances after being jostled and with dirt flying.

College athletes hailing from the perennial football powers have shown themselves to be capable of playing at the highest collegiate level and therefore are deemed to have the best pedigrees, whereas players from lesser football schools have more modest pedigrees and are generally viewed skeptically.  The pedigree equivalent in horse racing is bloodlines, and pedigrees full of black-type (stakes winners) in the immediate generations are most highly valued.

Regardless of the appearance of largely scientific and quantitative approaches used to appraise college football players and future racehorses, the tasks are replete with subjectivity and guesswork.  It is difficult to forecast heart and will to win in a human or equine athlete.  This partially explains why three of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL were not first-round choices.  Johnny Unitas was drafted in the ninth round, Joe Montana in the third round, and Tom Brady in the sixth round.  All of them had physical faults, such as Montana was said to be too short and too slight.

Last Saturday at Churchill Downs, California Chrome, the product of a mare purchased for $8,000 and bred to a sprinter stallion with a $2,500 fee won the Kentucky Derby.  This is not a fluke, as other low-priced colts like Seattle Slew and I’ll Have Another won the Derby.   The sensational racehorses and sires Northern Dancer and Sunday Silence were basically rejected as yearlings by auction buyers.

If you closely follow the NFL draft, you most likely have a rooting interest in a given team.  Hope springs eternal that the guy your team selects in the first round will surely turn out to be a pro bowler.  The validity of this high expectation will emerge, of course, when the player shows what he can do in the NFL.

Choosing yearling Thoroughbreds is much riskier than selecting college football players for the NFL because NFL scouts have had the opportunity to watch a player’s college games for three or four years.  While a racehorse owner increases his or her odds of buying a horse that can run fast by sticking to yearlings or 2-year-olds with nearly faultless conformation and blueblood pedigrees, the odds are still stacked against the buyer succeeding.

The California Chrome story is akin to an NFL team signing an undrafted free agent who ends up as a franchise quarterback or even with a bust in his honor in that coveted Hall of Fame building in Canton, Ohio.  The free agent would not be showcased in tonight’s NFL draft television extravaganza in New York.   And next year’s Kentucky Derby winner is unlikely to be found in the list of million-dollar-plus yearlings for 2013.

This is great for the NFL and it is great for horse racing.  Rooting for the underdog is a powerful emotion.

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