Handicapping with the Herd Dynamics

August 5, 2020

Ever since I turned my passion for horse racing and the study of how the psychological athlete impacts physical performance, I started getting asked about handicapping races. There is an absolute correlation between scouting herd dynamic characteristics, the depth of their athletic psychology as prospects, and scouting the same in the horses in the starting gate as you plan your plays as a handicapper. The irony for me has always been, I don’t gamble, I’ve never handicapped a race for the purpose of placing a financial wager; I leave that to THT Bloodstock business partner Pete Denk who is quite skilled in this department. The fact that I don’t bet is just a personal choice, I am certainly not opposed to it and totally understand the thrill of it, yet I have been to Vegas on more than a few occasions and never once had the urge to drop a buck on a table or throw a quarter into a slot machine.

That said, in truth we do utilize herd dynamic profiling and patterns of motion analysis to “handicap” perhaps the biggest race of the year and we have done so now for 9 years, 2020 marking our 10th Kentucky Derby. Though I may not slide my dollars across the ticket window, the very difficult task of developing a herd dynamic hierarchy and an “order of finish” based upon it, is indeed handicapping with the herd dynamics. The manner in which we do it, the process and the consideration of many variables such as combining physical data cross-checked with what we’re seeing and more importantly what we’re feeling, is for me keystone information I would use every time I wanted to make an investment toward outcome.

There are a multitude of factors to consider and seemingly innumerable hard-data access points; “hard data” without a doubt has its place, but I have always believed that too many numbers on paper clutters natural feel and instinct. You can overanalyze and out-think yourself. I don’t fuss too much over the herd dynamic hierarchy order of the Kentucky Derby field once we’ve done all of our work to compare horse to horse and horse to environment. When our evaluations are complete, I trust in how it feels and let instinct take the wheel. Horses are not machines nor data points; they are emotionally driven athletes guided by instinct. Numbers can be important collateral information but ultimately, I put more trust in what it is I see and feel about each horse.

From a herd dynamic standpoint, handicapping a field of horses like those in the Kentucky Derby short-lists down to tiers of probability. I always ask myself where would a given horse be likely to consistently finish among his or her peer group if they raced ten times. After considering all of the information and comparing herd dynamic strengths and weaknesses, it often comes down to tendencies and how they’re prone to playing out.

In truth, we aren’t handicapping the race, we are handicapping the individual horses in it. In order to truly get a feel for the entire field, you have to compartmentalize the study of the participants. Gaining an understanding of the horse both mentally and physically helps to better understand how they’re likely to perform in certain conditions, against certain company, and within certain environments. I’m of the opinion that in order to strategically increase your chances of success, it’s better to determine how the herd dynamics of the horse fit the race, than to try and fit the horse into the conditions of a race.

Over many years of study, I’ve learned there are a great number of pieces to the herd dynamic puzzle, and rest assured we’re still learning new things that continue to drive my passion. The search for an “edge” is ever-present and it is my hope that in writing this paper I’m able to share with you some of the fascinating characteristics of herd dynamics. There are hidden opportunities to be found within the horses’ psyche; herd dynamics are a valuable tool when filtering out the weak and dependent from the confident and capable.

VersatilityBet on It

Versatility of and in itself is reliant upon the culmination of several herd dynamic traits, diversity of layers coming together for a singular result.

I always feel that one of the best ways to help offset risk is for our clients to consider a diversified investment strategy, and the same is also true with handicapping regarding the information you’re collecting. Don’t let the numbers guide you to the horse, let the horse guide you to their numbers; it isn’t what was done but rather how it was done, that matters.

Because a race can be filled with everything from a great deal of situational chaos to completely smooth sailing, and everything in between, psychological versatility should be among the essential criteria you require in the horse(s) you’re playing. Never forget that it is the operating system that is running the machine, and the more psychological versatility the better.

The mentally versatile athlete has the ability to seamlessly adjust on the move, both adapt to and recover from sudden environmental changes and herd motion disruptions, and recover their mental momentum. These horses rarely lose their mental focus and forward reach even when they have to physically alter pace or position. Regardless of how many horses you’re betting on or using in a race, unless a first-time starter, paying attention to how they adapted and to what in any previous performances, will help you get a feel for how they will assimilate going forward. This is an important factor at every point in the race from gate position, track conditions, right down to the running styles of the competition.

The natural ability to accommodate situational chaos minimizes the risk that your horse will succumb to it in such a manner that they are unable to recover quick enough and lose too much ground, or not recover at all and fold their cards. Adaption on the move can be spotted in many scenarios. If the horse gets bumped what is the reaction, if the horse gets squeezed does it matter, can they finish from off the pace or hold on to forward space when pressed, slip through an opening or hug the rail?

 Identifying herd dynamic versality in your athlete is especially telling when horses are shipping to new environments and/or facing next level of competition. You want to be as sure as you can that the environment itself will not be an antagonist to performance; the environment plays a major role and should never be overlooked as part of the equation.

My late father was a very good pitcher and when we were growing up and playing ball, he would always tell us to keep “our heads dishrag loose and you will adjust on the fly”; a supple mind translates to a supple body. If you’re playing horses that are rigid mentally and only run great if “the race shapes up right”, you’re taking on additional risk.

Identifying StressExpressions & Body Language

Stress, it is an unavoidable experience for any sentient being and can play a significant role in the ability to perform. Stress on its own isn’t always antagonistic to performance, how stress is mentally filtered and physically expressed however, quite often is. Part of the handicapping process is in trying to determine if the stresses incurred are interfering with performance or in fact are even true expressions of stress in the first place; stress can be an exaggeration of body language, a random knee-jerk reaction, or its presence camouflaged by a shut down of any expressions whatsoever.

There are few things more misleading in the dialogue of horses than the assumptions that come with their body language. Like any language, the inflection of it tells you far more about what is being said and about the horse (or human) than does the vehicle of articulation. I have always made a distinction between expression and body language; expression being a result of unprocessed stress and body language a purposeful communication of personality. Expression is generally random, where body language is far more consistent; either may, but do not automatically interfere, with athletic performance. Knowing the difference can give you great advantage in your horse selection strategy.

Any opportunity to study horses for consistencies in their behavior patterns is time well spent and will help you see the athlete with added clarity. Not all stress is created equally, and thus not every expression of it directly interferes with performance; it is possible for an anxious and lathered horse to go on and run their eyeballs out. What falls in the range of “normal” can be very different horse to horse; there are horses with what we refer to as fast spinning mental cycles and there are some with slower, more methodical rhythms. Stress will affect each horse differently and the time it takes to filter it matters a great deal, you have to balance how long it takes before building stress is filtered with how much time (distance) is going to be required to finish the task at hand.

The fact of the matter is, any stress gnaws away at the depth of emotional energy and therefore your betting angle on using a stress-prone horse should always be hinged upon the distance. Don’t worry about the competition until you determine if the horse is going to have energy enough to competitively complete the task in the first place. If you think they will, then consider the competition, keeping in mind that stronger herd dynamics may be in the mix meaning your horse will ultimately be more reliant on their physical talent than their mental ability.

Think of distance not in furlongs but in duration; psychological time in competitive motion and not physical distance, is the enemy of emotionally stressed horses.

Where to look for signs of stress? The first obvious place is pre-race but it is far from the only place. In fact, you’re more likely to see a combination of purposeful body language and expressions of stress in pre-race activity in the majority of horses, potentially clouding your interpretations of what you’re seeing.

Body language is resultant of temperament, traits and tendencies of character and this aspect can tell you a lot about the horse as a “horse”, though by its nature will shed but little light on actual performance ability against horses of similar demeanor. Because herd dynamic strength and physical talent merge in competition, the higher HD doesn’t always finish physically first.

I remember being in California and watching Zenyatta paw at the ground, it was really cool body language that by itself neither enhanced nor inhibited her performance on the track. It was a window into her herd dynamic confidence and these things are absolutely communicated to other horses; however, the subsequent effect on their performances is incumbent upon the respective herd dynamics in the field. The point is, don’t get so focused on one horse you fail to spot potential rivals that may carry themselves differently. Your clue is in watching for the ripple effect, peers who either react to or absorb incoming stimulus. Confident absorbers always being a notch above.

All things considered, consistent and purposeful body language is a tell-tale clue of “who” the horse is yes, but during competition “body language” is replaced by body movement, and the potential opening of a doorway for expressions of stress.

For the horse athlete those stresses that are expressed within the body of competition is what we call “competitive stress” and though this can mingle with body language pre-race, it’s in the gate and the moment the gate opens that clues you in on how much stress had built up. Gate stress can make the horse mentally rigid and “tight”, as if ready to burst, they may stand as if stuck to the ground or be as fidgety as a child in anticipation; coming out of the gate is often more “falling” out of the gate or drifting left or right before finding their feet.

The body of the race also affords ample opportunity to study if residual stress is harnessing ability or if sudden changes in motion are causing anxiety. If competitive stress is compromising the horse in motion, they will withdraw their hand from the fire, mentally they will not extend thus compromising their mental to physical efficiency. Physically this is expressed in horses that shorten their stride and seem to be more up-n-down than reaching out; psychological extension allows the horse to physically extend.

The gallop-out is also a key place to observe any lingering or ongoing filtering of stress though can be a bit tricky to identify because as the horse slows, their expressions begin once again to mingle with body language. Be sure to note the signs of their emotional energy at this time. Is it being distributed evenly and still plentiful? Is there an even and controlled deceleration or has the mind checked out whilst the body is still easing out of momentum? The separation of mind and body results in the loss of fluid, purposeful motion.

The depth of mental stamina is a key. An individual’s ability to compete at any distance is determined by their mental stamina. It is not impossible or even uncommon for a horse to “win” a race but lose the herd dynamic battle, having gotten mentally banged up so to speak. This may well affect the horse next time out and helps you measure whether they have more distance and tougher competition in them, or has a plateau been reached?

Sensory Soundness

What is “sensory soundness”? In its simplest form it is the ability to detect and interpret multiple stimulus without herd dependency. For the horse athlete, sensory soundness also relates to the ratio between interpretation and rate of motion. In order for a horse to move freely through space or stay calm in surrounding chaos, they need to identify and interpret stimulus at minimum two times faster than the relative rate of motion. The faster the sensory processing the better for the athlete.

The sensory system is the fabric that binds the psychology with the environment and ranks among the most influential parts of the equine athlete. For the race horse, his or her radar system acts as the “lead-blocker” clearing the way as they move through space, is the alarm bell when another horse is approaching from the rear, and provides a sense of space awareness in jumbled herd motion.

The senses are as important to herd dynamic fluency as physical soundness is to physical fluency. Navigation of and through environmental changes, the execution of sudden “asks” by the jockey, the ability to react purposefully, all hinges upon the sensory soundness of the horse. The degree of sensory soundness, (fluency), is based upon the speed and efficiency with which the horse can interpret the environmental stimulus, which governs body control and pace; fluency of sequence is what allows the horse to move through space and not just move in space.

Identifying the degree of sensory soundness is an essential factor to consider in any athlete. There are a great many nuances within it to look for throughout the body of a race, any inefficiencies that can derail total performance even situationally, should be weighed strongly. The biggest of differences can come in the smallest of ingredients.

The most obvious thing you will note that there “may” be something amiss with a horse’s sensory efficiency is the application of equipment. I say “may” because the use of equipment to “keep the horse focused” on their task isn’t always warranted by the horse as much as it is a comfort tool for the trainer. Don’t assume automatically that a horse with equipment has troubles with interpretation without taking the time to study past performances whenever possible. The use of equipment, especially blinkers, can do a number of things to a horse’s basic sensory rhythms. Whether positive or negative, emotional energy is being condensed and this changes the way a horse distributes that emotional energy. Determining if the equipment is shortening or lengthening the psychology of the athlete is your primary concern. Any negative disruptions in the natural distribution of emotional energy and/or the fluency of the sensory system will result in delayed responses, or “drag.”

Drag may or may not be a serious issue depending on where it is stemming from. If you have a front runner by nature that shows drag in the rear aspect, and you have a stalker that likes to pounce and is very efficient and fluent into forward space, the lead horse can be compromised. However, if the drag is in the rear aspect of an off the pace competitor, you have more levity to work with. Determining if drag is or isn’t going to be a major issue in a race would be an easier read if the horse only had one transitional sensory aspect, but there are six.

These connective sensory aspects are, binocular forward, monocular left side right side, right and left oblique eye to ear transition, and rear feel. (The sense of smell being non-transitional, doesn’t share its information, though it can provide both initial and secondary/supportive intelligence.)

Horses have very keen sensory ability in all ways and the upper level herd dynamic horses have the natural capacity to manage multiple stimulus effortlessly. Their ability to transfer stimuli from sensory aspect to sensory aspect without any hesitation between them, sets them apart. The transfer of stimulus in this manner is a sensory lead change, and it is essential in order for a horse to navigate herd chaos effectively, independently and without compromising physical pace. Where drag or hesitation antagonizes talent, and lends itself to a horse requiring herd assistance during chaos, smooth sensory lead changes, (which are essential to physical lead changes), promotes herd independence.

Nothing is more demoralizing than having your horse “hang” and hand over the wire. Studying the horse and taking note of the strengths and weaknesses in their individual sensory fields will help you avoid things such as betting on that front runner that has no clue what’s behind him, inviting the stalker to pounce.

Stress and versatility are also closely related to and dependent upon sensory efficiency, so it pays to have keen observations. The cohesive nature of the herd dynamic translates to a horse’s patterns in motion.

Patterns of Motion

The 2020 Kentucky Derby will mark for us at THT Bloodstock our 10th year of analyzing the field and developing our herd dynamic Patterns of Motion report, (archived on our website), which is the culmination of countless hours of studying individual patterns “in” motion.

To understand and strategically access the information revealed in both the patterns of and the patterns in motion we have to consider them for what they are. Patterns in motion are relative to the individual horse’s unique running style when left to their own devices, in other words, what comes naturally without outside influences. Patterns of motion are individual running styles adjusted or adjusting one to another; two or more horses hooking up over a period of time in motion can often cruise along together, each one nearly matching the rhythms of the other, however the movement is dictated by the dominant herd dynamic. When one horse “buddy’s-up” with another in this manner, they’ve essentially formed their own independent herd motion.

Depending on field size and distance etc., there can be more than a mini-herd or two linked up and the horses you want to key on are those who have consistently shown that they cut the cord first. These horses have the ability to hit what we term a psychological cruising gear, conserving their emotional energy while covering ground in company then seamlessly freeing themselves, hitting another gear. This is often a herd dynamic strength that develops over time and you can often see this emerging in a horse from race to race as seasoning and experience arm them with the ability to anticipate the motion of lesser peers. Identify these emergent properties of style and you put a useful key in your handicapping pocket.

Any given horse’s running style is an extension of their psychological slant, IHD or GHD, and where both of these can be athletically effective, it pays to know the propensity of the horse you’re betting. IHD & GHD behavioral genetics are comprised of many parts. In short, the horse with a lean toward the Individual Herd Dynamic is the horse whose competitive nature feeds off singular stimuli as primary and multiple stimuli as supportive information. Group Herd Dynamic horses feed their competitive nature through multiple stimulus and use that to build mental momentum and balance when asked or required to focus on tasks or targets. IHD & GHD horses can run effectively in various positions; there are GHD front runners and IHD stalkers as often as there are the opposite.

Don’t let a horse’s herd positioning be your only guide to their strength or style, what you see isn’t always what you get. You could find yourself betting the wrong style at the wrong track in the wrong company; it must always be remembered that physical position doesn’t necessarily correlate to herd dynamic strength.

The idiosyncrasies of IHD & GHD slanted horses is important betting information from the environmental standpoint. A tracks design, weather and surface conditions, one turn mile or sprint, tight turns or not, field size and so on, all share their favors respectively. Group Herd Dynamic horses as a general rule of thumb often do well with more time in motion to build into their competitive nature, this can be in the form of more distance or slower pace, or even lesser herd dynamic peers who have slower psychological rhythms. Individual Herd Dynamic horses by their nature, require less time in motion to funnel their competitive edge and tend to comfortably focus on one point for extended periods of time. Every horse has elements of both GHD & IHD in their behavioral genetics, and this mixing of ingredients are represented in their dominant slant of expression.

Each style slant can be as athletic and as powerful as the other on an individual basis, but needs to be taken into context and compared with environmental conditions as well as their herd peers when being used for handicapping.  

Whether you’re keying IHD or GHD prone athletes, you have to be sure that the horse’s physical talent is able to support it. Does the GHD horse have enough physical stamina to realize their advantage? Does the IHD horse have the turn of foot to sustain their advantage? Regardless of IHD or GHD, the sweet zone of any horse is when their physical talent supports their mental ability and perhaps there is no more important question to ask than, does the horse have grit?

In the bigger picture, how the athlete does what they do can be more important than what they did, in other words, it’s not always where they finish but how they handled adversity within the body of the race. Your primary tool for scouting horses to key on should be the eye test, forget the order of finish long enough to focus on the race and you may well find hidden instances of true grit. There is no better asset to build upon than natural determination; key on that and you’ve taken a big step toward cashing your ticket. There are many questions you can ask, and when you’re laying down your money it pays to ask many.

Closing ThoughtsHorses & Handicapping

I’ve always felt that if the data associated with the horse represents their science, the herd dynamic represents their artistry. The artistry that defines the horse is the magic that makes the show possible, and from a handicapping perspective offers those inclined to study it, an edge. The numbers are most certainly useful and important tools of information and help tell you what the horse has done, but only the horse can tell you who they are. The herd dynamics bring life to those numbers.

It’s not about trying to win, everyone is trying to win whether you’re handicapping a race or we’re evaluating horses at auction, it’s about using every piece of available information you can to minimize risk; herd dynamics is at the leading edge of that strategy. Being physically able and mentally capable are two separate things, and the difference lay between the ears. Talent without execution is meaningless in the grips of competition, and it is within the horse’s herd dynamic that the true nature of the athlete is found. You increase your opportunity for success when you unclutter the field of prospects by culling out the weaker minded athletes. Horses by nature seek to align themselves in hierarchy, the herd dynamic is your window in to their world.

My view of herd dynamic profiling is that it is the blending of art and science. When you study things such as versatility, ability to manage stress, the efficiency of their sensory system, ability to adapt and so on, you’re gaining an understanding of the athlete far and above what the data alone can tell.

My bottom-line advice; may the horses you bet always have the mental fortitude to outrun physical fatigue.

Yet herd dynamics runs much deeper than that. Where herd dynamics brings the numbers to life, they also can breathe life into the industry, for the horses themselves are the greatest ambassadors we have. The horse has a story to tell, and we should let them tell it.

I have received many emails and notes over the years from folks who have never picked up a form or studied a race card, but have found themselves fascinated and immersed in reading our derby horse evaluations. I am of course proud of the horses we have identified, but I am most proud of the fact that herd dynamics has introduced a wide variety of animal lovers to the racehorse in a new way and thus their view of racing was seen from a different light. Sharing an understanding of the inherent athletic nature of the horse can go far in enhancing the industry.

The horses are our true industry representatives and I’m sure there are far more horse lovers than racing fans and handicappers and though I’ve never been asked for my opinion, I believe we can we reach them. I love racing, I know from having dedicated a large portion of my life to researching and studying herd dynamics that horses love to run and competing is a natural part of their lives. It is true that not every horse has the psychology to be a high-level athlete, but it is also true that horses are naturally athletic. Making information available on what herd dynamics are and how they work is important to me, because it is through education that appreciation comes, and my goal is to continue to showcase the artistry of the horse and the inherent nature of their athleticism.  

If you or perhaps anyone you know may be interested in learning more details about the topics touched upon in this opinion piece, please enjoy the articles archived here on Kerry’s Column and visit our THT Bloodstock website.

@jonathanstettin u should really do a 2 minute Past The Wire recorded segment for @Steve_Byk Monday Morning. Very grounded, excellent stuff

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