"Competitive edge is found where the psychological athlete merges with the physically talented;
#HerdDynamics matter, every horse, every discipline, everywhere." THT
|Posted on May 12, 2019 at 6:50 AM|
*Each year for our annual Kentucky Derby Herd Dynamics Analysis I pen a position paper as the introduction, in an effort to help further advance an understanding of work and approach here at THT.The following is a copy of the 2019 installment as it appeared in the KY Derby 145 analysis.
The Kentucky Derby & Herd Dynamics;
The Nature of Competition
Kerry M Thomas
If you would have told me nine years ago that our dabble into providing a pattern of motion, herd dynamic analysis of the Kentucky Derby horses would slowly but surely continue to build both in depth, as our work continues to grow, and in audience for years after, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Back then Pete and I were just starting to blend our working partnership; a serious blessing for me as he helped/helps me translate the often times raw material in my mind into practical application. Our rostrum then was Kentucky Confidential, for which I am and will always be forever grateful. Their vision in providing a platform to who was then a relative “newbie” to the derby flavors afforded a most spectacular opportunity and challenge.
Each year we do our best to provide a snapshot of the herd dynamic hierarchy and behavioral genetic profile of the field of horses going into the Kentucky Derby, splitting hairs more often than not by way of considering naturally occurring tendencies in motion and under stress. Our main goal is to provide for you a detailed conspectus of the horses individually along with a herd dynamic ranking “order” based upon all of the information we could mine from film study; any notes we have on a particular horse we had inspected at an auction will be included in their profile. This year’s top tier horses are very tightly knitted in herd dynamic strength, and coming up with an order of that strength is often by the smallest of differences. It’s racing, anything can happen, but the top tier herd dynamic horses have in my opinion the highest probability of success.
I look at the horses through the lens of my instincts first and think of them both individually and together while asking myself the question, out of ten races what is the likelihood of this horse finishing ahead of? When competition is close, when fields are large, I lean on physical ability juxtaposed with herd dynamic strengths to answer the question of probability. This is the same core approach we take when we’re asked to scout talent for private clients at sales, within an existing stable, for private purchase options or claiming opportunities. We utilize this fundamental approach when asked to assist with breeding decisions as well; behavioral economics being an important element in any investment strategy.
I say this all the time and I will say it again, race horses are not race cars; with a horse you’re investing in both car and driver, if you’re not considering the operating system of your physical machine, you’re only considering half the athlete. That can be both costly and disappointing.
I love horse racing because by nature horses love to run, and I’ve always been fascinated by the natural herd dynamics and their particular influence on races in general. The Kentucky Derby is a unique experience that presents the horse athletes a variety of challenges both physically and emotionally that draw deeply upon their inherent behavioral genetic codes; their herd dynamic.
What are the herd dynamics? Born from the ebb and flow of Mother Nature’s great storyboard, the predator/prey relationship, herd dynamics and structured hierarchy is the core of survival. They are the collection of the psychological matrix, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, the sequencing of the behavioral genetic code. They are often everything you don’t see and everything you feel, there influence on the horse as an individual plays a major role in leveraging horses in a herd, most especially a herd in motion.
In short, herd dynamics are those naturally occurring traits, tendencies and characteristics that make up the individual psychology and where this places the horse in the hierarchy of the herd environment. It is as I have previously mentioned the operating system of the physical machine.
There are many ways to apply the idiosyncrasies of the psyche when it comes to equine sports. We always start by studying the raw materials of both the physical and emotional athlete and work our way up through the details. Horses as athletes come in three basic forms; there are those that are by nature more physically athletic than they are mental giants, there are those who have far stronger athletic herd dynamics than their physical ability can optimize, and then there are those rare elite athletes that are equipped with both highly fluent physicals and highly fluent psychologies. I need to point out here the very important and influential “other” participant in this equation, the sensory system.
The sensory soundness (efficiency) of the individual has a great deal to do with the physical expression of the psychological horse. I often use the comparison of a blocker in football making a hole for the running back to move through. A high functioning sensory system identifies stimulus in the environment, is able to pass the stimuli to other senses without disruptive physical reaction, (what I call a sensory-lead-change) and funnel the outside world to the inside world for interpretation. The sensory system searches for stimulus, the psycho-sensory interprets it; the herd dynamic manages the interpretation. The horse will either affect the environment, or be affected by it.
Horses that are more reliant on their physical ability than their core herd dynamic strengths as athletes and as individuals come with naturally occurring environmental dependencies. Mid level herd dynamic strength requires outsourcing; this is the dependency/co-dependency relationship of the majority of horses in any natural herd. This is by Mother Nature’s design and highly instinctive, for the links in this chain are the social fabric of a herd.
Mid-level herd horses though physically capable, struggle to assimilate when alone and are easily influenced when under stress by stronger horses and more easily affected by sudden environmental changes. The inability to properly assimilate independently creates dependency; isolating a horse means you’re isolating both strength and weakness. Adaptability is an inherent element to overall herd dynamic strength and assimilation to situational chaos while in motion is an essential key to the optimization of ability during competition. It does not mean automatically that these horses cannot and will not become successful athletes, for they can and do. What it does mean is their management, development and placement require some additional attention. It also means to me, that if we have a like prospect before us, we need to make certain their sensory system is efficient to a level that it will not impede in any manner the physical strengths of the athlete, and even better, is high functioning in a way that will help offset any herd dynamic holes and thus help optimize raw ability.
In nature elite herd dynamics rule the day, day in and day out; measured hierarchy is how prey animals, exposed in the open with predators potentially at every turn, survive. They depend on the leaders to lead and to pass down as much of the “upper crust” behavioral genetics as they can. Emotional intelligence, adaptability and environmental awareness are all leadership qualities. Yet in sport, especially in racing, elite herd dynamics alone will not get you across the wire ahead of the more physically capable. It is the reason a strong herd dynamic may struggle to “compete” on a physical platform, yet may become quite useful in passing down their inherent strengths in a breeding program. We find horses in our scouting where we love their sensory systems and their herd dynamic, but we have to walk away from them because as physical athletes we just don’t see the horse taking our client to the promise land. I find myself telling Pete, “maybe not a physical athlete, but probably a lot of potential in a breeding program”.
Then there is the perfect storm, so to speak, where the elite psychological athlete meets the elite physical athlete. Elite potential in both of these areas is as rare as it is awe inspiring, and makes the search so exciting; it’s why I dub it, #Panning4Gold.
These elite athletes are not often found on many of the same playing fields. Among the things that make the Kentucky Derby such a special competition, as well as so challenging to diagnose, is that generally the best of the best find themselves together for the first time; bumping and grinding and gritting it out in a chaotic and excitable environment. This motley of horses coming together, head to head at a mile and a quarter, makes for a wonderfully unique and herd dynamically demanding experience.
Herd dynamic strength and power operating a capable physical machine is a force to be reckoned with and an element that should never be underappreciated be it in handicapping or purchasing. I have always felt that the true “value” to be found in the athlete is housed within their internal grit, will and determination. The psychological influence of the herd dynamic from one horse to another is not often easily noted, for there can be, and frequently are, many subtle variations of influence at play in any given moment depending on environment and circumstance. Most often the result of herd dynamic presence is seen in its ability to manipulate or disrupt physical speed or pace, control space, sense and react to approaching pressure or zero in on the true forward target or peer. It’s harder to see aspects are within the ability to manage stress, adapt in motion to rapidly changing environments, anticipate herd motion of lower ranking horses, and distribute emotional energy evenly as necessary and sustainably.
We break down the overall herd dynamic in to two collaborative but differently expressive areas, the Group Herd Dynamic and the Individual Herd Dynamic. The GHD is largely responsible for environmental interpretations, space awareness, sensory lead change ability, and emotional energy conservation; which lends itself to an efficient mental cruising gear quite well suited for in-traffic navigation. The IHD influences athletic power and expressions of grit, and is geared toward targets, combat and is what allows a horse to drop the hammer even on a “target” that is open space far out in front of them. (In the THT lexicon we denote this as DTF, Distance Target Focus). It is in this area of DTF you find the difference between horses running in space, and horses running through space.
A mixture of GHD and IHD to some degree is inherent in all horses, though horse athletes, especially thoroughbreds, will have a prevailing herd dynamic shift; some horses will be shifted more into the IHD area giving them what I refer to as a hi-rev psychological spin. Their sensory systems and sometimes even their basic character traits have a faster spin-cycle internally that veils their actual efficiency until in sustained physical motion. The GHD shifted horses have a more methodical, though no less competitive psychological spin. Their sensory system and character traits can be veiled in apparent quiet nonchalance that comes alive through the buildup of competition and the time they are in competitive motion.
Note: *IHD shifted horses can also find a mental cruising gear, though their natural rhythm cycles faster and is more directional than that of the broader based, methodically toned rhythm of the GHD horse. IHD shifted horses can at times run the risk of excessive emotional energy burn the same way the GHD based cruising rhythm can sometimes “fail to launch” into competitive IHD. When this is a question, the answer to which way they may spill under pressure is often found within the efficacy of the sensory system.*
Natural patterns of motion are reflected in these herd dynamic shifts. IHD shifted horses will have a pattern of motion generally more aggressive and expressive than those GHD slanted, sliding through space with oft times subtle alacrity. In regards to distance aptitude and being competitive at increased distances, the inherent value is found within the individual horse’s ability to properly filter stress and distribute emotional energy over time and within herd chaos. Regardless of the shift, IHD or GHD, it’s what they bring to the table when they get there. Their inherent patterns of motion through the course of a race can look very different, but in either form, head to head, it is who brings the most sustainable grit that matters; for there are two types of fatigue, physical fatigue and emotional fatigue. When physical ability and athleticism are evenly matched, determination and mental fortitude becomes the difference maker.
“Herd Dynamics; if it influences the horses daily life, it influences their competitive life.”
I’d like to express my appreciation to all of you that purchase our report. As you well know it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to develop our Kentucky Derby Analysis. We work hard to provide you with a unique window into each horse (and into our singular way of evaluating them) that you can reference not only for the First Saturday in May, but also as these horses continue their journey. We work to provide you a perspective of where they were, where they are and where they’re likely going, founded upon who they are as individual horse athletes.
I’d also like to thank Brisnet for their ongoing support of our work and it goes without saying, this report would never come to be without the dedication, talent and hard work of Pete Denk. Pete is not only THT Bloodstock partner, but the best friend I could ever ask for.
Pete and I continue to consider the future of THT Bloodstock and where we will always welcome new clients at any level of ownership or buying interest, we are also eying up the potential for THT Thoroughbred Partnerships. If you or someone you know would like to access the advantage of our services privately or you’re interested in being kept in the loop regarding partnership opportunities, please email Pete at [email protected] or via Twitter, Pete is @Petedenk.
For additional information about our work, research and everything else THT, please allow me to invite you to visit our website www.thtbloodstock.com. There you can find position papers on the Blog and the previous Kentucky Derby archives in Big Race Analysis section among other things.
*Clinics, Seminars and appearances are available and if you’d like to follow me on Twitter I’m @thomasherding, you can also connect with me on FB or join THT Bloodstock FB page. Thank you again for your time and your support, you make the effort it takes, worthwhile.
Kerry M Thomas, Founder of THT