The Numbers Don’t Lie

Several years ago, while engaged in one of those mind-numbing Facebook arguments that makes one want to seek out Mark Zuckerberg and beat him senseless with a licorice twist, my brother was accused of being “too logical.” Now, to me, that’s kind of like criticizing someone for being too good-looking and, since were twins, I’ll go ahead and charge my sibling with that crime as well.

I’ve heard similar ridiculous rants in horse racing circles, where handicappers like myself are sometimes chastised for being too numbers-oriented.

“A horse isn’t a number,” certain racing folks, many of whom have been struggling for years to program the clocks on their microwave, cry. “Handicapping is more than just evaluating figures.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, just like art and music can’t be boiled down to numbers and decisions can’t be reduced to a series of ones and zeroes.

The only trouble is they can.

Show me a great technological or intellectual breakthrough and I’ll show you numbers… ninety-nine times out of 100 (see what I did there?).

When Albert Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity in 1915, he asserted that, despite having no resting mass, light was nonetheless affected by gravity — and he expressed this belief (and many others, I might add) in the form of equations. However, Einstein’s numerical representation of light’s behavior wasn’t actually proven until four years later when, on May 29, 1919, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington observed that the sun’s gravity did, in fact, bend starlight just as Einstein predicted it would.

Yet Einstein was far from the first to use numbers as a means of understanding or predicting universal/world events. Game theory, a branch of applied mathematics dedicated to finding solutions to strategic scenarios with different possible outcomes, traces its theoretical roots to before the American Revolution. In a letter to the French mathematician Pierre-Remond de Montmort dated Nov. 13, 1713, British ambassador James Waldegrave detailed the first known statistical solution to a two-person game — in this case, “le Her,” a game of cards. (Isn’t it heartening to know that, even in the 1700s, politicians were focusing on the grave issues of the day, like card games?)

In modern times, game theory has gained widespread acceptance. In 2005, college professors Thomas Schelling and Robert Aumann won the Nobel Prize in economics for their work in the field and, in a 2007 piece for ScienceNews entitled “Mathematical Fortune-Telling,” columnist Julie Rehmeyer detailed how NYU Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita was using game theory to predict political outcomes.

According to Rehmeyer, “two independent evaluations, one by academics and one by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have both shown that about 90 percent of [Bueno de Mesquita’s] predictions have been accurate.” (I don’t know whether he got the last presidential election right, although in an interview on May 13, 2016, he noted that “It’s looking shaky for the party in power,” adding, “the polls are often wrong.”)

That humans would turn to numbers and mathematics to solve some of life’s great mysteries should hardly come as a surprise. The fact is, as observational beings, we stink. Scientific American pointed out that, “since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced, Innocence Project researchers have reported that 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. One third of these overturned cases rested on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses.”

Think about that for a second.

If observations carrying the weight of a criminal conviction can be wrong so often, how many times do you think one’s impression of something as inconsequential as a horse race might be in error? Of course, the “experts” will say that being a trainer’s son or daughter, having years of experience on the backstretch, or the fact that they watched the movie “Dreamer” half a dozen times makes them an authority on thoroughbred handicapping, but does it really?

Following impressive wins in the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks and a third-place finish in the Ashland, Balance was made the 8-5 favorite when she headed a full field of 14 in the Kentucky Oaks on May 6, 2006. According to trainer David Hofmans, his filly was “the best horse out there” and jockey Victor Espinoza called Balance’s final Oaks blowout — 1:11-3/5 for six furlongs — the finest workout he’d ever taken part in.

Nonetheless, for fig followers, there was trouble in paradise. To begin with, Balance’s last-race late speed ration (LSR) was a horrendous -26. True, that number was earned on Keeneland’s old dirt strip that sometimes acted like a conveyor belt, favoring frontrunners in the same manner that Gulfstream Park’s surface often does. But even if Balance had won the Ashland, her speed and pace numbers would have been nothing to write home about. Worse, the poor LSR in that event followed an excellent -5 LSR that the daughter of Thunder Gulch had recorded in the Santa Anita Oaks.

Balance

(Past performances from Brisnet.com)

But here’s the really damning thing: the past performances suggest that Balance had some physical issues and while I am no fan of layoffs, I can’t help but wonder whether or not that superior Oaks speed ration knocked the delicate filly off her game a little bit. Notice too that the Ashland was Balance’s first race without Phenylbutazone, or Bute, which, when administered, is denoted by a capital “B” preceding the odds in the Brisnet past performances (see the green highlighted column above). Although hindsight is 20-20, it’s worth observing that Balance never won — and hit the board only once — in her four tries without Bute.

Clearly, though, Hofmans and Espinoza, two racetrack vets, never saw these warning signs or, if they did, they made public statements contrary to what they believed — and I’m certainly not accusing them of that (even though we all know such things do happen from time to time). The point here is that numbers and analysis have led us (I hope) to a conclusion that mere observation, even by those “in the know,” would not have.

Needless to say, after making a brief bid around the final turn, Balance ran up the track in the 2006 Kentucky Oaks. Her LSR was a woeful -28.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.