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Further evidence...or am I a bit biased about the bias?

Author: Nicholas Godfrey

05/04/2018
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LAST WEEK’S column was all about track bias; specifically, the inside speed bias that has dominated proceedings on the Meydan dirt strip at this year’s Dubai carnival. This column, too, is largely about bias, albeit now with the evidence of another brilliant Dubai World Cup card to consider. But what should we do with such evidence? Maybe the first bias of which we need to be aware is ‘confirmation bias’, a term used in psychology to describe the tendency of the mind to form an impression and then retrospectively to fit the evidence to support the theory. It is the very opposite of objectivity, wherein all the evidence would be sifted without an intrusive subjective input fogging the issue.

Analysis of such confirmation bias forms no small part of a new book I’m reading entitled The Undoing Project by the excellent Michael Lewis, famous among other things as the author of Moneyball, the wonderful investigation into how Oakland Athletics transformed the baseball world via data analysis and objective statistics rather than relying on the felt experience of an entire industry. So, with this in mind, what did we learn from Saturday’s World Cup card? Well, anyone seeking evidence that front runners on the rail hold an unholy advantage on the Meydan dirt will surely point to a couple of cricket pitch margins and victories for prominent runners Thunder Snow, Mendelssohn and Heavy Metal.

However, in an attempt to avoid the aforementioned confirmation bias, let’s consider first the outlier: the Dubai Golden Shaheen, where the course record may have been lowered but was done so by a horse who came from last of ten, making up something like eight lengths in the stretch. Despite my lingering reservations over the Meydan dirt surface, there is no denying this race played out as a dirt sprint should when they go too fast. Jordan Sport, who benefitted from Super Saturday’s golden highway, was forced to do too much to claim the lead here from his wide berth, though the speed he showed in clearing X Y Jet was impressive and he is likely to dominate the domestic sprint division next year.

As in 2017, there was just too much pace on here and they were duly collared by the closer Mind Your Biscuits (though he did indeed benefit from a rails draw). Next we’ll look to the UAE Derby and the stunning Mendelssohn, who delivered everything and more that those of us who have been crying out for him to run on dirt were expecting in an 18 length romp that ensured he will go to the Kentucky Derby as a serious contender. Ryan Moore knew what he was doing (and what he was riding!) but even so, Mendelssohn’s early speed was tremendous, such rapid early fractions enabling him to grab the rail and slam his opponents in a notably smart display.

That he broke the track record by a sizeable margin probably says more about the state of the track than anything else, but slow horses don’t break track records. Okay, the track bias probably exaggerates what sort of a performance this was, but the runner-up Rayya is a high class local specialist and she was battered by the winner, who is a half-brother to the triple Breeders’ Cup winner Beholder. His winning margin may flatter him but there is no way the track was responsible for the result. However, if the track bias did not affect the UAE Derby result, it may well have played a role in Thunder Snow’s victory in the main event inasmuch as the jockey who gave his horse the best ride duly rode the winner.

Christophe Soumillon rode a peach on the Godolphin 4yo, aboard whom he was allowed to set easy fractions before kicking on in the stretch and winning the race in the manner to which regular watchers of racing at Meydan have become all too accustomed. Frankly, the form is surely not to be trusted. Thunder Snow is a good horse, of course, but he had been well beaten by North America in the final leg of the Maktoum Challenge. North America enjoyed the run of the race that day; that one dimensional front runner certainly picked the wrong night to miss the kick. (Especially as I made him my headline selection in the Racing Post Pricewise column!)

But although North America had no chance after his break, his preferred style of running means he would not have won the race on any dirt strip on the planet; this wasn’t a peculiarity of Meydan, it was a peculiarity of the horse. Given the utter lack of early pace in the World Cup, it was galling for North America’s supporters to see how easily Soumillon was able to cross over and inherit the lead. Maybe he and North America would have set the race up for something else if they’d both had a decent break, but we’ll never know. The favourite West Coast, on the other hand, was ridden one off the favoured rail, ceding the advantage to his rival.

The tactics may have worked at another venue but not here. The inside speed won, yet again, and it won easily, and, without going into any deeper analysis, it was much the same story with Heavy Metal in the Godolphin Mile. Ryan Moore again; no fool, that lad. So, even while allowing for confirmation bias, it is hard to get away from the idea that the Meydan dirt remains a largely one sided examination; get in front, and you’ll probably stay there. Then again, there is something of the self fulfilling prophecy about all of this: jockeys know about the prevailing (or alleged) track bias, and ride their horses accordingly, thereby accentuating the effect.

In The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis also quotes Voltaire. “Doubt is not a pleasant condition,” said the great French philosopher. “But certainty is an absurd one.” Amen to that. But I’m still fairly certain that if I was ever riding on the dirt at Meydan, I’d be going ‘hell for leather’ for the rail.Sorry to say it, but on the whole this carnival has not been a great advert for dirt racing. Visitors welcome but this is a hometown party AS FOR THE turf races, apart from the admirable Vazirabad, a top class stayer anywhere but next to unbeatable over the two miles at Meydan, it seems, and surely that race be a Group One in waiting?, this was a hometown party for Godolphin. We should never lose sight of the pressure involved in this meeting for the home team, and it is no wonder both Charlie Appleby and Saeed bin Suroor were so delighted with their Group One doubles (Bin Suroor also landing the main event on dirt with Thunder Snow, of course).

William Buick’s ride on Hawkbill in the Sheema Classic is worthy of a mention too as he stole an easy lead and went on to nick the race after turning for home. Have to admit, I wasn’t all that impressed with the horse on Super Saturday; just shows how wrong you can be. On the wider issues, however, with four out of five Group Ones for Godolphin and five out of eight for UAE-based stables, Saturday’s card may not have provided the optimum set of results for the event’s reputation as a whole. At the risk of repeating myself, cosmopolitan racing is the raison d’etre of the Dubai World Cup and its attendant carnival; if the home team dominates to such an extent, it could feasibly act as a deterrent to international visitors.

Mind Your Biscuits winning the Golden Shaheen and a few cheques from placed horses in the World Cup itself will keep the much coveted Americans happy enough; on the other hand a strong Japanese team went home empty handed, while the Aussies were not a factor in the sprint and Mike de Kock was barely sighted. True, the huge amounts of prize money on offer at the world’s richest raceday will always encourage overseas participation and there were a couple of European victories. What is more, it is not as if other showpiece meetings on the global calendar don’t feature more than their share of domestic victories. Ironically, though, a Kentucky Derby triumph for Godophin’s arch rivals Coolmore via Mendelssohn would provide the best advert for the Dubai World Cup meeting that it could hope for.

Yet there are those who disdain racing at Meydan as a Godolphin benefit and Saturday’s results can only add to any such prejudice, even if their successes were hard won. Who knows? Perhaps the remaining sceptics are just falling prey to a bit more confirmation bias..

Nicholas Godfrey,

Racing Post international editor

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05 Apr 2018
Issue Number: Issue 643
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