Irish Field: A data-driven approach to racing and breeding by Leanne O’Sullivan

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Secretariat’s autopsy revealed he had a heart nearly three times the size of a normal thoroughbred heart.

Phoebe Bright talks to Robert Fierro and Jay Kilgore, of DataTrack International, about the use of data to assess the racing and breeding potential of horses

ROBERT Fierro, a well-known pedigree analyst, racing and breeding consultant, along with former publisher Jay Kilgore, who has developed digital video programmes and services to expand the parameters of thoroughbred biomechanics and motion analysis, and Frank Mitchell, respected author and biomechanics expert, have used their years of experience to develop methods of collecting and using data to assess the racing and breeding potential of horses.

DataTrack International was set up in 2005 to take advantage of this new technology and to be part of that revolution in racing and breeding.

Establishing DataTrack wasn’t straightforward, as many buyers and trainers considered technology to be a threat to their careers. There also wasn’t an immediate demand from owners who were already successful without using data. They would need a lot of convincing that the use of data could be of further benefit to them.

Over the years, interest in equine biomechanics data has fluctuated. Unsurprisingly, stars of the sport seem to have a huge impact. For example, after the death of Secretariat they found he had a massive heart – everyone in the industry started to pay attention to cardio.

When Zenyatta captured the media’s interest after becoming the first mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the first horse ever to win two different Breeders’ Cup races, the talk centred around stride length and again demand for gait and stride analysis grew.

When there is a star, they capture the interest of owners and trainers in advances in technology that can offer an insight into what gives one horse an edge.

BioDataTrack

(L-r) Frank Mitchell,Director of Biomechanics, Jay Kilgore, Director of Operations and Bob Fierro, Managing Director of DataTrack International

CHALLENGES

From talking to Fierro and Kilgore it has become apparent that in 2017 it’s not an easy job to talk to a trainer about data-driven approaches to training horses. Despite the huge opportunity to personalise training programmes, most data reports produced for owners never get seen by the trainers, because they are not interested. However, the big, well-funded trainers have been using technology for years.

Technology that may have been previously out of reach for smaller operators is now becoming less expensive and more accessible, and it would be great to see trainers welcoming data reports as there are massive opportunities to use insights drawn from gait analysis to personalise and develop more effective training regimes.

In the southern hemisphere there are so many more syndicates in contrast to Europe and that’s why equine technology businesses are blossoming.

Also, the people who put together syndicates are younger people and they’re the people who are typically more data-driven and interested in technology. Younger people like numbers. They like instant gratification and returns – not just on investment – but it’s easy to show them that, everything else being equal, the value of a horse with a 24ft stride is greater than a horse with a 23ft stride.

BREEZEFIGS

DataTrack has developed BreezeFigs, a speed figure system that analyses stride length and other factors displayed by horses in motion at two-year-old sales or at racetracks (in races or morning breezes) to select the most promising racing prospects. From over 17,000 horses analysed, BreezeFigs’ top selections include nearly 80% of all stakes winners to emerge from the major two-year-old sales in North America since 2005. Daily Racing Form has incorporated BreezeFig as part of its DRF-Plus online handicapping services to select the unraced or lightly-raced horses with the best chances to win races.

BreezeFigs have been successfully used to determine quality not only in the United States, but also in New Zealand, Britain and France.

Fierro and Kilgore explain how they developed BreezeFigs: “We started collecting data during three years at Keeneland, so six meets worth of races. We found that 78% of all the horses that came in first, second or third, had conformation with similar angles and segmental distances.

“We made sure we were accurate by using simple measuring strips along the track. We spent three more years collecting data from two-year-old sales we attended. That was easily between 2,000 and 3,000 strides per year.

“We gathered over 40 numbers for each stride. We get the height of a horse, length of a horse and measure that against body size, so we are looking at a ratio. We get the true biomechanics of a horse in motion. Gone are the days of length of stride counted with frame rate as we have found it to be highly inaccurate.”

PERFORMANCE INDICATOR

“By measuring and analysing a particular horse and comparing the results with a database of other horses, you can assess how a horse is likely to perform. For example, a horse that is short from the elbow to the ground and high from the flank to the ground, will have a downhill trajectory that is most suitable for horses who have to settle and close late.

“If you push that horse too early it may have a lot of speed, but it will tire more easily in the last part of a race because it put too much pressure on its front end too early. Even if that horse has a cardiac system that can make up for what we call wasted energy, you would be more likely to be successful with a horse like that by telling your rider to let him settle, stalk the pace and turn them loose at the eighth pole.”

COST AND SALES PRICE

The objective of BreezeFigs is to identify for buyers at the sales those horses which are the true overall athletes, not just those that have the fastest times; and to tell handicappers which horses in what races are most likely to win a race-especially in their first starts.

An analysis for one horse, which includes the BreezeFigs number, stride length and a couple of other internal numbers costs $100.

“To give you an idea, here in the USA, buyers see the speed data at the breeze-up sales and it will send the price of fast horses up when it comes to bidding,” states Fierro and Kilgore. “One of our poster horses is Commanding Curve, who came second in the Kentucky Derby to California Chrome.

“That horse went 21 and four for a two-furlong work which is not lightening fast but he did it with a very good long stride, very good efficiency of motion, great biomechanics and proportionality, great heart. The client of ours, West Point Thoroughbreds, picked up this gelding for $75,000 and he’s had career earnings of $600,000.

“Data is great for syndicates because they can make the case for bidding up to $80,000, and not stopping at $50,000, because of their stride, heart and cardio data,” they concluded.

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Commanding Curve (Master Command) trains for the Belmont Stakes (Gr 1) at Belmont Park (6/6/14). Trainer: Dallas Stewart. Owner: West Point Thoroughbreds.

CONCLUSION

While many existing owners and trainers will continue to work the way they always have, a new breed of owner with a background in technology will support trainers who are using technology and data to improve their chances of success.

Data is the new oil and so it should be no surprise that the new people coming into the sport and investing money into horses are those who have made money by following data and tracking the ebbs and flows of data on markets and it’s hardly surprising that they want to take a similar approach to have success with their horses.

The world’s five biggest companies are all tech companies (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook) and they all have Irish offices. How would a data-driven approach change racing in Ireland?

Horse Tech guest speakers

Robert Fierro and Jay Kilgore will be presenting at the upcoming HorseTech Conference which is being held at the Royal Veterinary College on October 18th, 2017. Commenting on the upcoming event they said: “It’s great to be presenting at an event that’s being video-recorded and live-streamed free as it can be a particularly steep learning curve for trainers as they have the additional challenges of finding it hard to get away from the farm to learn about new innovations and experience the new processes that they can adopt.

“We need to help trainers appreciate that by collecting data they can better understand precisely why they’re successful and it can help them innovate and learn quicker when implementing new techniques.”

For more information on this conference, go online to horsetechconference.com.

THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE IRISH FIELD ON THE 22ND SEPTEMBER 2017.

Make sure you don’t miss the keynote presentations by Jay and Bob by registering here for the free livestream on the 18th October 2017.

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