I always tell people when you meet someone new, never judge a book by its cover, because you never know who that person could be. I have had the opportunity in my life several times to have what I would call “chance” encounters with seemingly ordinary people only to find out something extraordinary about them. Three months ago was no different and this is when I met a regular guy. As we struck up a conversation, he gave me his name and I was flattered that I was speaking to none other than Kerry Thomas.
I’m a student of the game of horse racing and have been since I was old enough to walk and talk. My father instilled that in me and I carry it around like a torch in my heart that burns brightly for him in his memory. Being a student of the game, I look at all angles: works, past performances, watching film, tracking trips, biases, you name it! The one thing that I was always most interested in was the physicality part of handicapping. You want to get a good look at what you are about to wager on, looking for clues in the behavior: is the horse washed out? acting up in the paddock or on the track?, is he or she on their toes? Are their ears pricked? Let’s take it a step further, or should I say let’s rewind to the part that happens before we get to analyze these beautiful creatures.
Before all of the handicapping and in some aspects the horse becoming of racing age, you have a specialized part of racing that the average fan and even most handicappers never get a chance to see or experience. Horse auctions and sales, where you just might run into Kerry Thomas. This is where big money hopes to purchase their next champion race horse or with the smaller operations that hope to get even luckier by finding a chance of a lifetime race horse on a budget. Kerry likes to call that “panning for gold.”
I just got off the phone with Kerry and I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I felt as though it was the purest conversation I have ever had about race horses in my entire life. Kerry doesn’t participate in wagering on horses and that made the conversation even more interesting than I ever imagined. Kerry has spotted some of racing’s most elite horses of recent times. One that comes to mind is Runhappy, Breeders Cup Sprint Champion of 2015 and there are many others but those names are kept in strict confidence between Kerry and his clients. It’s important to note that Runhappy ran his entire campaign Lasix free. More on that later…
A product of growing up in an Amish part of Pennsylvania, Kerry is the only person in his entire family that is in the horse business. Kerry worked hard as a youth with his father doing construction and by the time he turned 18, after watching his brother get called up to go play MLB baseball with the Atlanta Braves, the bar had been set. Kerry was on a mission to find himself. He originally wanted to be a zoologist but later decided to focus on animals and the physical reaction of their behaviors. This is where he immersed himself in a natural environment that he lovingly calls his “laboratory” and mother nature became his best tutor.
Kerry Thomas is very competitive and doesn’t like to lose as his competitiveness shines through in his work and how he approaches an upcoming sale, scouting top tier talent for his clients. He wins when his clients are happy and he is able to pick out great horses that display high grades on his herd dynamics scale. His job is to identify elite prospects and “high functioning” above average prospects.
Kerry said that the norm is about 3-5% of the entire sale is in the “high functioning” category/above average while only 1% of the sale would be considered “elite.” To find these types Kerry employs uncommon methods like psychological patterns of motion under stress, natural tendencies and their emotions and how they are able to handle stress. This and more are the work of 25 plus years of data collection of watching and interacting with animals in their natural habitats.
Kerry offered me a few snippets without giving away too much of his proprietary methods, one of which was the herd dynamics scale on the difference between a good score and a bad score on the scale. The lower the horse on the herd dynamics scale the more physically expressive they are likely to be while the higher on the scale the more purposeful movers they are. Come to think of it those elite horses we see crossing the wire winning big stakes races are definitely purposeful movers. You saw it recently on display with the past two Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify. That stride, effortless flow of fluid motion displaying a sound sensory system. This is what Kerry is looking for when he arrives at a sale; a horse that displays great environmental interpretation as well as a sound sensory system and sensory lead changes without physical movement.
I found it interesting that his approach at these sales is slightly different from the norm. Most Bloodstock agents are paid on commission based upon the sale while Kerry Thomas charges a flat fee. His reasoning behind this is quite simple. He feels as though by charging a flat fee it offers his clients the ability to find the right horse instead of just buying a horse as he would rather recruit the right horse for the right price and this offers a chance for him to find value.
The price is irrelevant in some aspects because we have all seen horses like the Green Monkey who sold for a cool 16 million and turn out to not have the attributes to be a great race horse. We have also seen horses like that famous hip no #85 at the Fasig-Tipton August sale one year that didn’t meet its minimum 300k auction bid only to have Ahmed Zayat buy him back, you know him as American Pharaoh. Let us not forget an unbelievable bargain in Funny Cide who was originally purchased for 22k and pin-hooked for 75k to Barclay Tagg on behalf of Sackatoga Stables who went on to win 2 legs of the Triple Crown- Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2003.
It was time for me to ask Kerry some questions that I had pre thought of; however, in the midst of talking to him, I felt as though there was so much more I wanted to ask. Each year before the Derby, Kerry and his partner Pete Denk put out a herd dynamics overview of the Kentucky Derby field. For the past 8 years they have been very good at selecting horses that finish or that are worthy from their studies of finishing in top half of the field. So I had to ask
I see you have been very successful in identifying top derby contenders- how do you do that? Do you read past performances?
“I never read past performances, all of input is based upon watching film and studying the horses’ movements while employing herd dynamics.”
I have heard that your behavioral analysis on horses has been considered the “moneyball” approach, can you elaborate how this ties into selecting horses for potential buyers at the sales and how much has your behavioral analysis helped you become a better Bloodstock agent?
“Some horses aren’t meant to be race horses, it’s my job to find out which ones have the mental and the physical attributes to endure the rigors of a tough racing campaign.” “I am able to identify subtleties, continuity and I have the ability to break down the Psyche of a horse.” “Putting a price on a horse is the human element of the business I am in”. “Sometimes the human element may have overlooked a horse who is selling at a bargain price that nobody may be looking at.” “I may look at a horse that’s selling for 50k that in my mind should have been priced much higher; this is where I find value.”
What do you feel are the biggest issues in racing and do you have any ideas on how to address them?
I believe the biggest issue in racing is the fact that racing is so insular and confined to its unit of only select groups of people. We need to open the doors of racing to the outside world by doing it through the horses. I feel as though if we offered more information about horses to new fans we would attract more people.
How do you feel about medication in the sport of racing?
“Medication can be a double edged sword, there’s medicating a horse and then there is what I like to call common sense medication.” “If it’s in the interest of the horses safety I am all for it however if it’ s in the interest of masking injury for the purpose of getting claimed in claiming races I feel as though its unethical. “If we were able to apply horse psychology more often there would be less need for medication”. “When you find a natural athlete there’s no need to plug them full of meds because at that point you have an artificial athlete on your hands.”
How does your work crossover to handicapping? Have you ever considered developing any products for handicappers to use?
“I initially never approached my work with a handicapping perspective in mind. I do realize how my work if used correctly could definitely be used in handicapping”. I have considered creating a herd dynamic grade for horses however the process for that would be very time consuming”. I have in the past worked with some tournament handicappers providing them with a tailor made herd dynamics report for the specific set of races they were using in their contests”. We would continue to do that on an individual basis is someone wanted to do that”.
I started an interview today that I expected to last about an hour instead I received an unexpected education in the purest form I could ever imagine. I left my conversation with Kerry Thomas hungry and so enthused to want to learn more. An honest man that still believes in a handshake and your word with such a wealth of knowledge based on 25 years of data collection just gave me a mini masterclass and spent over three hours with me. One of the most humble people I have ever encountered that truly has a natural love for horses and approaches the betterment of the industry, as opposed to seeking riches from it. If you are a buyer looking to scout the best talent tread lightly unless this guy is in your corner as your Bloodstock agent. Some people speak foreign languages as a second Kerry Thomas speaks horse.
“I chased a dream that at one point I was ready to walk away from because I needed to earn a living, I decided to stay the course and that’s when I met my right hand man Pete Denk, an award winning journalist who was previously with the Thoroughbred Times as well as the Auctions Editor at the Lexington Publication.” “He is the head of our Bloodstock division and he also produces many of our reports.”
On July 9th you will see Kerry Thomas and his team at the Fasig Tipton Select sale in Lexington scouting out the best of the bunch and giving each client the same attention to detail whether your budget is large or small, putting client after client in front of horses that he feels can give maximum performance for the money they spend. It’s hard to put 25 years of Kerry Thomas’ research into one article so I will leave you with this. To be continued…..
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT KERRY AND HIS SERVICES VISIT HIS WEBSITE: www.thtbloodstock.com