• What’s In a Number?

    POSTED Sep 13, 2013
    Recently, a friend of mine, Brian Zipse of Horseracing Nation, penned a column called “I'll take my eyes over your numbers every time.” Overlooking the fact that the title reminds me of a bad joke from the movie “Hot Shots” (I’m kidding, of course; there were no bad jokes in the movie “Hot Shots”), I thought Brian’s piece was very thought-provoking.
    For it addressed a handicapping topic as old as the Sport of Kings itself: Which is more meaningful, what one sees on the racetrack or what one sees in the pages of the past performances? In his blog, Brian discusses an argument he had relating to Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew and arguably his most famous son, A.P. Indy.

    “An industry person recently tried to compare favorably the running ability of A.P. Indy versus his daddy, Seattle Slew, by saying that the son ‘had better numbers’ than his sire,” Zipse wrote. “Our brief conversation took place online, so the other person could not see my reaction. I laughed, and then I shook my head with a mixed feeling of sadness and disbelief. His comment ended our brief debate, for I believed anything further would be less desirable than sticking my forehead under a dripping faucet for the rest of the morning.
    “With all due respect to A.P Indy, who was a fine racehorse, and then went on to be an outstanding sire, but he was in no way, shape, or form, the runner that his father was,” Zipse concluded.

    Obviously, Brian is not alone in his opinion. My guess is, the vast majority of racing fans would agree with his conclusion in this instance… but does that mean that observation always trumps analysis?

    I don’t think so.
    In fact, I contend that sight is among the least reliable of the human senses — if only because we put so much stock in it, despite not always being able to process what we see (Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, once noted that optical illusions should be called “brain failures, because that's what they are”).
    I don’t think it’s even debatable that, generally speaking, folks are more apt to believe something they saw “with their own eyes” as opposed to something they read about, even in a scientific journal or some other credible source.
    Think about it: Most folks who believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and/or little green men asking them to “take me to your leader” do so because they (supposedly) saw them, not because they found the evidence of their existence overwhelming.


    What’s more, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, “eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in 72 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions.”
    Simply put, numbers and statistics — properly analyzed and applied — are far more reliable than one’s peepers.
    The problem is, they aren’t always properly analyzed and applied. Too often, people use data only to support whatever conclusion they’ve already drawn — with no thought (or concern, really) as to what the numbers actually show.
    Take, for example, the case of former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg.

    If one ignored context, one would have to conclude, based on stats, that DeBerg miraculously transformed himself from a poor passer to a highly proficient one in a single year (I can already see Tim Tebow fans reading this with renewed interest).

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    DeBerg went from completing just 45 percent of his passes in 1978, to being just one of four players (oh, how the times have changed) to complete at least 60 percent of his pass attempts in 1979 (Dan Fouts, Ken Stabler and Archie Manning were the other three).

    But there is more to the story — much more. In addition to 1979 being DeBerg’s second year in the NFL (no small consideration to be sure), it was also the year that a guy named Bill Walsh took over as head coach of the San Francisco 49’ers.
    Now, prior to Walsh’s arrival, San Francisco had won more than seven games in a season exactly four times since 1958. The team had never won a championship of any kind since joining the League in 1946.
    Bill Walsh and his innovative “West Coast” offense, which stressed shorter, timed passing routes literally revolutionized the pro game — and I think it’s fair to say that it salvaged the career of DeBerg, who wound up playing until he was 44 years old.
    Numbers, by themselves, can’t tell us the influence that Walsh had. They don’t put DeBerg’s talents in perspective.

    Likewise, Sinister Minister’s scintillating 12 ¾-length victory and 116 Brisnet speed figure in the 2006 Blue Grass Stakes didn’t express how speed-favoring Keeneland’s surface was or what an easy trip the son of Old Trieste got that day (I remember the race very well because I cashed a nice win ticket on him).

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    The point is: numbers don’t exist in a vacuum. They must be evaluated in light of other relevant factors.
    However, the huge advantage that numbers provide over mere observation is that they give us something measurable, something concrete. Let’s be honest, Secretariat’s Belmont was not great because he won by an eye-catching 31 lengths — lots of mediocre horses have won by daylight margins, especially in steeplechase and hurdle events. What made Secretariat’s Belmont great was that he completed a mile and a half in 2:24 — a mark that no three-year-old has even come close to. 

    Oh, and for the record: Both Seattle Slew and A.P. Indy won the Belmont Stakes as well. "Slew" was clocked in 2:29-3/5 over a “muddy” track, while A.P. Indy was timed in 2:26 over a “good” track.

    Let the debate continue…
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