Kevin Blake

Leading writer Kevin Blake makes the case for racing opening itself up to more data, more specifically, physical data of individual horses with the aim of educating the public on horse conformation.

  • Monday 23 September
  • Blog
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A SIMPLE, AFFORDABLE IDEA THAT COULD HELP DEMYSTIFY RACING AND BETTER INFORM ITS AUDIENCE

It is one of the great quirks of horse racing that so much mystery is attached to the act of assessing racehorses in physical terms. Horse racing has any number of followers that can break down complex processes in an effort to assess a horse’s ability/performance down to the tiniest of margins. Yet, if those same people were put in front of the horses they were analysing and asked to give a rundown of their physical condition/attributes, most of them would be likely to struggle.

That isn’t a criticism, it is merely a reflection of the complete lack of effort horse racing as a sport has made to educate its audience on how to physically assess horses and their condition. The result is that “paddock watching” is routinely portrayed as a dark art that only those that were raised in a stable can possibly fathom with any degree of credibility.

Most people without such a background don’t dare to give an opinion on a horse’s physique for fear of exposing their lack of horsey background. Those that don’t let their lack of real knowledge on the subject be a barrier to giving an opinion on it tend to resort to lazy and often ill-informed clichés.

The favourite or second favourite is coincidentally the routine pick of the paddock and every Group 1 horse is some variation of stunning, gorgeous or some other over-the-top adulation even if they are quite the opposite.

Recently, a filly running in a Stakes race in this part of the world was described by one on-course pundit as a “little rat of a thing.” The filly in question is 16-1hh and weighs in the region of 500kg on raceday. With the general standard of paddock assessment being so low amongst the racing public and there being so little effort made to improve it, misinformation such as this tends to go uncorrected and is thus repeated.

In pretty much every other sport on the planet involving physical competition, great emphasis is placed on the physical measurements and attributes of the athletes, yet our analysis of racehorses is constrained by a lack of available data.

Thus, why shouldn’t horse racing make more of an effort to gather and publish this data in order to better inform and educate its audience? With this in mind, I would propose that serious consideration should be given to weighing, measuring and photographing every horse prior to them running and making this data publicly available.

Hong Kong is often put forward as being the example by which other racing nations should seek to replicate as best they can in terms of the standard and level of information provided to the racing public.

Their excellent funding model and small horse population allows the Hong Kong Jockey Club to provide a level of detail on all horses trained there that is on another level to other racing nations. Indeed, they already provide a comparable level of information to what is suggested above.

As can be seen from the HKJC website, each horse has an image of them taken in the parade ring that is both published in their online form profile and in the detailed racecard available at the track on raceday. The weight that they were prior to every run is also recorded and published.

As good as that is, in my opinion it could be even better. While it is better than nothing to have one stock image of each horse, real value could be gained by taking an image of them prior to each start so that changes in their condition/physique can be monitored over time.

As well as that, adding a height measurement would be a welcome addition, as it gives the user a better appreciation of the horse’s physique. For example, one could take two horses and know that they both weigh 500kg, but they would be completely different models of horses if one was 15-2hh and the other was 17hh. This is information worth having.

The key to such a proposal being workable in racing jurisdictions like as Britain and Ireland where horses aren’t trained on the tracks is that the process is quick and easy, presenting as little inconvenience to the horses and their handlers as possible.

The weighing of the horses is the most easily achieved part of this suggestion. Weighing scales can be subtly installed into the ground at the entrance to the racecourse stables and each horse can be weighed quickly and easily either on arrival to the racecourse or soon after.

While this information would inevitably be published relatively close to the race being run, getting it late is better than not getting it all. As well as that, the information would offer value as a post-race analysis tool and as a historical record as much as it would as a pre-race guide.

At the point of being weighed, each horse could potentially have their height measured using a traditional measuring stick. Given that a horse’s height is unlikely to change much over relatively short periods of time, it could be agreed that they are only measured again after an agreed time period has passed since they were last measured.

With regard to taking the pre-race pictures of the horses, this could potentially be conducted in the pre-parade ring.  

It goes without saying that the means by which the weighing, measuring and photographing of the horses is carried out is very much open to suggestion and change so that it is carried out in a way that is as convenient and unobtrusive for all concerned as possible. Every aspect of it would be open to discussion.

Whatever way it is achieved, having this sort of information and imagery available and integrated into the biggest racing form databases would be a game changer. It would greatly enrich and deepen the coverage of the sport. It would help demystify it not just for newcomers, but for existing supporters that haven’t had the opportunity to be educated on such matters.

One can be sure that as established experts use the imagery and information to make points about horse’s conformation and condition, the standard of knowledge across the sport on such matters would grow significantly, which can only be a good thing.

Ultimately, the viability of this sort of proposal comes down to the will that is there to make it happen. There has been an ongoing discussion in this part of the racing world about sectional timing and it finally seems as though real headway is being made. There is no doubt in my mind that making them available from all British and Irish tracks would be a huge asset for horse racing, but it is also important to acknowledge that it is a highly-expensive and logistically challenging feature to install on racecourses.

Weighing, measuring and taking pictures of horses would not be expensive in comparison. Weighing scales for horses come in many specifications, but a good quality one can be bought for less than €1,000. A quality camera can be bought for much less than that. After that, all is needed is the cooperation of all involved to make it work.

This is something that could be readily achieved if the will is there for it to happen. It wouldn’t require a huge investment of time or money to introduce, yet the return to the sport would be significant.

Horse racing is being left in the dust by almost every other sport on the planet when it comes to embracing data. Making this happen would be a significant help in making up that lost ground.

WHY NOT COLLECT JOCKEY DATA TOO?

While we are on the above subject, it seems a good time to ask why aren’t the physical attributes of the jockeys published too? We all know what they weigh out at for a race, but given there can be quite significant height and weight differences between jockeys, having a record of measureables such as their height, weight, length of leg/torso and reach would be fascinating and informative.

One of the most interesting pieces of jockey analysis I have heard in recent years was Ruby Walsh discussing how his physical make-up, in this case his length of leg, shaped his riding style. He contrasted his physique to AP McCoy who has a longer torso than him and thus placed more emphasis of utilising his upper body in his riding style. That is the sort of analysis that having jockey’s physical measurements on record would allow.

Not only would it allow for more objective assessment of jockeys and their strengths/weaknesses, having such data on record for a long enough period of time would allow for a multitude of interesting statistical studies. For example, the impact of different levels of “dead weight” have on horse performance could potentially be assessed.

It wouldn’t take much in terms of effort and investment to record such measurements, perhaps it could be undertaken as part of the annual licensing process, yet the data it produces would have clear potential to advance the standard of analysis/comment in the sport.

Kevin Blake
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