Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 3, 2020

Only Bits And Bytes Ran For The Roses

It was late afternoon on the first Saturday in May, so in keeping with tradition a field of horses began the run down the long home stretch toward the finish line at Churchill Downs. Having led since early in the race, Seattle Slew remained in front, but a bevy of contenders was right behind. The first to make his run was Citation, who had charged from far off the pace by moving between horses as the field swept around the final turn. But even as his jockey, clad in the familiar red and blue silks of Calumet Farm, put Citation into high gear, he was challenged by Secretariat, who had swung wide for running room and now came barreling down the middle of the track. To the roars of the thousands looking on, Secretariat overtook Citation in the final furlong, beating him to the wire by three parts of a length, while a tiring but determined Seattle Slew held off Affirmed and American Pharoah for third.

Of course one need not be an avid follower of horse racing to recognize the names of the contenders in this race, and thus to instantly know that it was not the 2020 Kentucky Derby, but an ersatz competition, one more in the long and growing list of not quite real sporting events that fill our pandemic-emptied airwaves. With this year’s Derby postponed until September, NBC opted to fill the time slot with a computer generated simulation, pitting avatars of the thirteen Triple Crown winners against each other over the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter, at a packed cartoon Churchill Downs that stood in sharp contrast to the long rows of empty seats at the real track in Louisville.

This being an age in which advanced statistical analysis plays an outsized role in every sport, it was only appropriate that the simulation was the product of a computer algorithm based on historical performances of each of the thirteen real horses. Those statistics were fed into models developed by Inspired Entertainment, a company that produces both content and hardware for the gaming industry. The proprietary technology also factored in the evaluations of racing experts, in an effort to account for the many changes in the sport over the long period from Sir Barton becoming the first Triple Crown champion in 1919 to Justify turning the trick ninety-nine years later.

For all that it’s likely that the computer program left many of the early winners heavily handicapped. Short of a séance it’s tough to find an analyst who could speak knowingly about any of the first eight horses to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, since it’s been more than seven decades since Citation became the last of that group to do so. In addition, for much of horse racing’s history statistical recordkeeping was neither centralized nor controlled by the industry itself.

Still it’s hard to argue with the result of Inspired’s simulation. Secretariat, the big chestnut colt trained by Lucien Lauren and ridden by Ron Turcotte, set records in each of the three races (including a world record for the mile and a half distance of the Belmont) that all stand to this day, nearly half a century after he capped his Triple Crown by “moving like a tremendous machine,” in the immortal words of announcer Chic Anderson, on his way to winning the Belmont by thirty-one lengths. Had the algorithm resulted in any of the other horses crossing the wire first, there might have been a simulated foul claim rivaling the real one that upended last year’s Derby.

To be sure, there was some real racing on Saturday. Thanks to a reshuffling of the major stakes schedule in the wake of the Derby’s postponement, the Arkansas Derby, normally run in April as one of the prep races leading up to the Run for the Roses, was moved to Saturday. Then with racing options limited for the many horses vying for an eventual spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park had so many entrants that the Arkansas Derby was split into two divisions.

As it turned out, running two races instead of one just meant an additional win for Bob Baffert. Horse racing’s most famous trainer, instantly recognizable thanks to his shock of white hair, Baffert is more strongly associated with the Triple Crown than any other trainer or jockey. He saddled American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018, becoming the first trainer since Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the 1930s to guide two horses to racing’s biggest and most elusive prize. Baffert’s horses have been first to the finish line fifteen times in the three Triple Crown races, and barring injury he’ll likely send two of the favorites in this year’s Kentucky Derby onto the track in Louisville as the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” come September. That at least was the obvious conclusion on Saturday, as first Charlatan and then Nadal toyed with their competition in the two heats at Oaklawn.

In the first running Charlatan bolted from the inside post and was in the lead by the time the field hit the first turn in the mile and an eighth race. With no other contender pressing him for the pace, Charlatan breezed along down the back stretch, gradually turning a two-length lead into a six-length gap at the wire. Then in the second race Nadal – yes, the horse is named for the tennis star – ceded the early lead to Wells Bayou. That might have been a concern for some punters betting remotely on Baffert’s horse, since Nadal had won his first three races from the front. But Nadal had a clear path in the second lane and put his head in front midway through the far turn. King Guillermo challenged briefly at the top of the stretch, but Nadal simply motored away to win by three lengths, giving Baffert an Arkansas double.

Perhaps for some horse racing fans having two heats of a Grade I stakes race made Saturday twice as nice. But the first Saturday in May belongs to a race first won by Aristides in 1875. As much as Opening Day, or Sunday at the Masters, the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs is one more sign that another long winter has been turned aside. It is a day for big hats on women and bright suits on men. A day when millions of Americans who know absolutely nothing about horse racing tune in and make a small wager based on the name of a horse or the colors of a jockey’s silks – and some of them win. It is a day that a sport with so many problems of late sorely needed. But like those other harbingers of spring and so much else in all our games, it is a day that this year will have to wait. This year, the only good thing about the first Saturday in May was that the algorithm got it right.

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