Thursday, August 17, 2006

Pondering Points

If you are a regular reader to this blog, you probably noted that it is affiliated with the horse racing genius collective, the TBA. We all love horse racing. We all love writing about horse racing, except for maybe The Lemon Drop Kid who got so excited that Barbaro won the Florida Derby that he has since forgot how to blog. Regardless, we all have a primary goal: promote horse racing.

There is, however, another objective of the TBA and that is the pursuit of thoroughbred standings by using a point system based on graded races. Patrick of Pulling Hair and Betting Horses and his Harvard-educated sibling developed an algorithm for the standings that are posted on each TBA blog. Patrick and Brother Harvard put serious thought, effort, and logic, and probably consumed a six-pack or two, in the development and implementation of the TBA Standings.

Personally, I believe this mechanism merits thought. We could all just stand around, whining about the decline of attendance or space devoted in the daily newspaper, or we can encourage change. Point system standings are objective. Let’s face it, when we open the sports section, our eyes are drawn to numbers and rankings to assess our teams and athletes. My brother can look at the American League standings and note that his beloved Red Sox are in second place, two games behind the Yankees. My husband can look at the National League standings and see that his beloved Cubs are in fifth place, 11 games out. How many points Jeff Burton has in the Nextel Cup Points Standings (2,879). How many days Terrell Owens sat out of Cowboy’s training camp (14). Yes, in sports, it is natural to look at numbers.

Another positive to the notion of horse rankings is that it enables casual fans to see and recognize names of outstanding horses. My friend, Sheryl, knows of Barbaro and Funny Cide. And her husband thinks that Alysheba was the name of Omar Sharif’s girlfriend in the movie, Doctor Zhivago. It should be noted that I have hauled this couple to the track on more than one occasion, too. Therefore, name recognition would be a real promotion for the sport of horse racing.

So, those are my thoughts, which basically mean nothing. Crowning a champion is not my personal goal. Objectively naming the Horse of the Year is not my ambition. As a horseplayer, my relationship with the horse is connected to how much money a pari-mutuel teller hands to me after I turn in a winning ticket. At this writing, Malibu Mint should be HOTY.

But others in the TBA continue to search for improvements. A few weeks ago there was a deluge of emails, suggesting changes in the point distribution and giving more recognition to the horses that win Grade II races. A couple of members dragged out their soapboxes. I remained silent during the volley of emails because, quite honestly, I’m na├»ve when it came to the importance of certain races. And if I have something to say, then I better at least have a clue.

I determined that research was required, and when it comes to research I generally try to do as little as possible. So I opted to contact The Horse Racing Professor Gary West of the Star-Telegram.

Gary kindly responded to my request for his thoughts and opinions on the subject. And he did not disappoint me. He used lots of big words. And I’m sure it will be the only email in my lifetime that uses the Latin phrase, petitio principii. At least, I think it is Latin.

Historically, the North American Graded Stakes Committee was originally created with the intention of assisting buyers and sellers at auctions; they identified most of the important races. However, over time, many began to question its usefulness because, as Gary West said, “Nobody goes to a sale and spends significant money buying a son of Thunder Gulch without knowing the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Travers are important races.”

But somehow, the grading of stakes began to grow in importance, such as determining the illogical process of limiting the size of the Derby field. The committee, which eventually morphed into the American Graded Stakes Committee when the Canadians decided that it would be in their best interest to remove themselves from such silliness, plundered on, passing out grades that perhaps served to their own interests. Thus, the grading of races has become terribly flawed.

But any serious fan … should be able to recognize the nonsense of the grading system. The Kentucky Derby and the Prioress are the same grade, Barbaro and Acey Deucey forever linked as Grade I winners? Nonsense. Which was the better race, the ungraded Colonial Turf Cup or the Grade II Virginia Derby? Well, the winner of the ungraded Colonial Turf Cup, Showing Up, won the Secretariat while the winner of the Grade II Virginia Derby finished 16 lengths back in last. I’d have to say that regardless of the grading, the Colonial Turf Cup was a much better race. And such examples are abundant. The sport overflows with them, because the grading system is inherently flawed.

Gary continued,

Only by waiting until after a race has been run to assign a grade could the grading have any validity ... To begin the year, only the Breeders’ Cup and Triple Crown races, along with such stakes as the Travers and the Santa Anita Handicap, would be inalterably and infrangibly Grade I. All other races could be assigned a minimum grade, with the committee having the opportunity to upgrade the race at the end of the year depending on the quality of the field.

Those who support the point system standings, or an a priori thinker as Gary West so lovingly used (I told you he used some big words!), should not make the assumption that the grading of stakes is meaningful. Thus linking the point system to a flawed grading system is basically “something that the government would do.”

Malibu Mint, anyone?


Anonymous said...

Great research, great post. And Mr. West definitely has a point. But really, someone should have warned me that I'd need Latin to read about horse racing. So is that Malibu Menta or Malibu Minthe for HOTY?

John said...


Please warn us when a foreign language dictionary will be needed to read your post.

Yes another great post, thoughtful as usual,inspiring to some of us

Patrick J Patten said...

Great post, couldn't agree with Gary more, i'd love to see the AGSC actually do something meaningful, i think that's what started me on this (I would love to work for them)

Ruben Bailey said...

Nice job, Sue.

Another perfect example of how this sport needs to completely re-think every aspect of what it currently (and previously) has done.