As I’ve said before, I love James Willoughby’s insights; he sees it as it is, and he tells it like it is, with a dimension that puts proportionality onto most things. Of course, his observations are made at a distance, they are those of a fan of the game as much as they are of a professional journalist, and unless it’s our own bank account that’s at risk, it’s difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of those who own, train or ride the beasts. What happened at York on Wednesday in the Juddmonte International, on the face of it, looked like a disaster for those close to the season’s top-rated three year old, Golden Horn, whose magnificent victory in the Investec Derby I had the pleasure of watching. I have to confess though, if I were faced with the same dilemma which confronted Messrs Anthony Oppenheimer, John Gosden, Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore team with their respective steeds, Golden Horn and Gleneagles, I would most likely have been tempted to adopt exactly the same course as they did. Yet there is another perspective to it all, and our friend Mr Willoughby hits the nail on the head, even if at first glance it seems there is scant comfort in it for the vanquished.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing alright, but Golden Horn’s connections now have reason to rue their decision to skip the Group 1 King George at Ascot: his absence there might have cost him two Group 1s, not just one. In the aftermath of the brilliant Derby winner’s defeat by 50-1 shot Arabian Queen in the International, his rider Frankie Dettori said. “Golden Horn was going to the King George and missed it, so came here a bit fresh today.”
Golden Horn’s trainer John Gosden concurred with Dettori, and it’s entirely consistent with what both men said to infer that the last-minute absence at Ascot was costly. According to race times, the ground was similar then to this week at York, so that can’t really excuse the decision to pull him out on the day of the race then.
Had Golden Horn run at Ascot, it’s dangerous to conclude he definitely would have won the Juddmonte as a result of being sharper. That risks the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, the belief that one event is the cause of another, when the situation is more complicated than that. But, when you watched Golden Horn yield to a lower-rated filly at York, it certainly looked as if his freshness early, and lack of a hard conditioning, made the difference. Like Dettori and Gosden intimated, Golden Horn ran very much like a horse short of a recent race.
Sometimes, even the shrewdest professionals choose a path that rank amateurs would have improved upon: the clarion call to let Golden Horn run at Ascot came from every corner of the sport. At the time, Gosden’s decision to withdraw on the day was cast as if it would improve the colt’s future prospects, but now he and Dettori are saying it actually compromised them.
Indeed, the withdrawal of top horses, and the general lack of competition in some of the top races this season in Britain, has now become a hot topic. “Get on with it!” is the cry.
The major contribution to the controversy has been made not by Golden Horn, but by the Aidan O’Brien trained Gleneagles, a good winner of the G1 2000 Guineas and G1 St James’ Palace Stakes at Ascot who skipped a clash with the French gelding Solow in the G1 Sussex Stakes, and again cried out of mixing it with another top-notcher in the Juddmonte. (O’Brien once again cited the easy going as justification for withdrawal).
The presumption after Golden Horn missed the King George was that risking an unbeaten record was unpalatable to his connections, while defeat for Gleneagles is also thought to be particularly damaging to his reputation in a year when his owners Michael Tabor, Derek Smith and John Magnier are not exactly replete with prospects to retire to Coolmore Stud. (There is no imminent danger of Coolmore running short of sons of Galileo, however).
While nobody responsible for placing a horse should run it in a spot they believe to be poor, it does seem the spectre of defeat is haunting too many leading connections. But, is the analysis of the sport dependent on counting ‘1’s to assess a horse’s career; are breeders really so naive that they will discount pedigree and performance and favour unbeaten horses over better prospects that met defeat? Is the withdrawal of a horse from a valuable Group 1 justifiable when framed by a metric central to economics: the expected value of all future earnings?
In my view, the answers are “no”, “no” and “no”. It’s well established that the need to view business decisions probabilistically, rather than deterministically, drives the most successful ventures around the world. This is a decimal world, one of unavoidable uncertainty, rather than one of discrete outcomes measured by 0s and 1s. Humans are hard-wired to be cautious, to pay greater heed to the downside of uncertainty, because sometimes that is crucial in actually staying alive. But, if business proves that humans are particularly poor at predicting the future, sport underlines the point in bold type. The value lies in running, not hiding.
That connections of top horses should run to provide the public with entertainment is a vain wish: there is no point appealing to major players in racing on this score. But, taking a look at the sport from 30,000 feet, it seems ridiculous that racehorses are increasingly being treated like coddled prize fighters whose reputation must be managed to get them top gigs. Golden Horn is free to run in the Arc, Breeders’ Cup, Cox Plate and any other top race, no matter what happens to him beforehand. And racehorses actually get better by racing, so let them run.
Since the Juddmonte, I haven’t heard anyone of good judgment question Golden Horn’s ability. His connections don’t need to worry about manipulating our regard: don’t worry, we get it. He wasn’t quite right at York and the winner got a brilliant ride from Silvestre De Sousa. The Derby was still run in a brilliant time when you check the figures; Golden Horn was still going away at the end of the Eclipse when you watch the film. History wasn’t rewritten by the mere fact of defeat, and this is a perfect example.
Golden Horn’s trainer John Gosden remains among the best on the planet at what he does. Nothing changed. Now and then, Messi trips over the ball, Mike Trout strikes out three times and Tom Brady throws it straight to a linebacker. Gosden should have run Golden Horn in the King George, and now the colt has no Ascot Group 1, no York Group 1 and no unbeaten record. Had Gosden assigned the correct probability to the eventuality that played out with his horse, he should have made a different decision.
In any case, the need to tread carefully with racehorses is built on a mistaken premise. The world is much, much smarter than it used to be. A stallion’s genetic material doesn’t change with defeat, neither does its physique and pedigree. What exactly is reputation if it is ruined by defeat, when there are thousands of examples of top-class horses, and topclass stallions, who had their colours lowered, sometimes on numerous occasions.
And, to those responsible for rendering the sport less competitive with their conservative approach: have you considered that you might just find something new and unexpected by running? Perhaps, there is a chance that your presuppositions might prove wrong. Risk management is not just about limiting the downside. Many bad decisions are made because uncertainty has not been given due regard. In placing horses, to err is human, to let the darn things actually race is divine.
Extract From Thoroughbred Daily News
Golden Horn & Arabian Queen, Juddmonte International / York Press (p)