Measuring Greatness

Profile Picture: Derek Simon

Derek Simon

September 4th, 2014

The late Walter Payton, Hall of Fame running back for “da Bears,” once noted: “When you're good at something, you'll tell everyone. When you're great at something, they'll tell you.”

With horse racing, it’s different, of course. With the exception of Mr. Ed and a few dubious creatures I’ve seen at last call, horses don’t talk. Hence, folks on social media are left to do the talking for them… which can be a very scary proposition indeed.

Look, I love the Internet as much as anybody. On the days that I’m too busy to log into Facebook to see what my friends are having for lunch, I feel lost. But, let’s be honest: social media is not exactly a haven for thoughtful insights.

While learning that Taylor Swift is enamored with monkeys does help me to understand why she’s had such a spotty dating history, it’s not exactly the kind of information that I need to make an informed decision — about anything. Likewise, noting — as Red Capitalist did in the comments section of an Associated Press story on the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic — that “Goldikova rules! Zenyatta sucks!” does not end the debate, at least in my mind.

I bring all this up because I’ve been fascinated by the chatter — both positive and negative — regarding Wise Dan. From the often uncomfortable professions of love to the equally unsettling angry missives relating to his less-than-ambitious campaigns, it is clear that the seven-year-old son of Wiseman’s Ferry gets people talking.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder why so many question the greatness of Wise Dan or Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra, while giving horses of yesteryear a pass.

In 15 career starts on the grass, Wise Dan has lost once, when he checked in fourth behind Gio Ponti, two-time champion Male Turf Horse, in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile on Oct. 8, 2011. From that time ‘til now, only five horses have crossed the wire in front of trainer Charles Lopresti’s stable star — the aforementioned Gio Ponti, Get Stormy, Sidney’s Candy, Ron the Greek and Silver Max. Combined, those horses have won 52 of 133 lifetime starts (39.1 percent).

Contrast that with a horse whose greatness is never questioned: Secretariat.

In the year he swept the Triple Crown (1973), the “tremendous machine” finished behind four rivals — Angle Light and Sham in the Grade I Wood Memorial, Onion in the Grade II Whitney and Prove Out in the Grade I Woodward. Between them, they won 33 of 127 lifetime starts (26.0 percent).

Despite this, it is Wise Dan, not Secretariat, who some critics claim “hasn’t faced anything.”

To provide even more proof that Wise Dan is no slouch, let’s compare him — statistically — to another acknowledged turf great, John Henry:

John Henry

In 1984, John Henry won six of nine starts en route to being Horse of the Year for the second time. Of those nine races, seven were Grade I affairs, including five on the lawn. The son of Ole Bob Bowers averaged a +1 early speed ration (ESR), a 0 late speed ration (LSR) and a 45.0-degree pace profile (see definition below) in his turf starts that year.

Wise Dan

Compare that to Wise Dan, who has averaged a 0 ESR, -1 LSR and 50.7-degree pace profile in turf races over the course of his last two campaigns. At the very least, the pace figures show that Wise Dan is in the same league as one of the sport’s all-time greats.

Let the social media bickering begin anew.

Early Speed Ration (ESR): A measurement of a horse’s early energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The lower the figure, the greater the horse’s early exertion in that event.

-15 = Demanding.
-10 = Brisk.
-5   = Moderate.
 0   = Soft.

Tip(s): Animals that combine low ESRs with high speed figures are often prime candidates to win in wire-to-wire fashion. So too are those steeds with a significant overall ESR advantage.

Late Speed Ration (LSR): A measurement of a horse’s late energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The higher the figure, the greater the horse’s late exertion in that event.

 0   = Excellent.
-5   = Good.
-10 = Fair.
-15 = Poor.

Tip(s): Because late speed is measured when each horse is being asked for its maximum effort, LSRs can be a great indication of form as well. Young horses with improving Late Speed Rations are often superior to older, more experienced rivals with established figures. Furthermore, any animal that combines a positive Pace Profile with high relative LSRs and good speed figures must be given serious consideration. Entrants that show positive LSRs or those coming off of a big win punctuated by a superior LSR are especially strong contenders.

The Late Speed Rations are also very effective in a negative context as well. Horses with consistently poor figures in relation to the rest of the field make notoriously poor favorites and can often lead to great overlays on other, less fancied runners.

Pace Profile: A simple comparison between a horse’s Late Speed Ration and the Early Speed Ration of the race in which it was earned. A positive (+) profile is greatly desired and serves to authenticate especially impressive LSRs. The Pace Profile is an easy, yet crucial means of relating early speed to late speed.

Tip(s): The Pace Profile of a particular race can be especially useful when horses are switching distances/surfaces. For example, an animal that has been competing in dirt sprints might be given extra consideration in a turf route if he/she shows a string of positive (+) Pace Profiles, as distance races on the lawn tend to emphasize late speed.