Horse running through field

Is a Horse a Who?

by Roger Lyons

The use of the personal relative pronoun as a reference to horses–who and whom instead of which and that–struck me as peculiar when I first took an interest in racing. I thought it stood out like a sore thumb, but deferred to what I took as a stylized convention of turf writing.

Adopted self-consciously at first, the conventions of turf writing settled comfortably into my speech and writing–all except that one. Gradually, it began to stick in my craw. That’s just the opposite of the way a convention is supposed to work. When introduced to an unfamiliar culture, one finds its conventions strange at first, but then becomes inured to them. As they take their place in the framework of one’s understanding of others, they recede into the background of one’s awareness. To me, however, “who” and “whom” for horses became more obtrusive over time, not less.

The long and the short of it is that the personal pronominalization of horses doesn’t feel like a convention. It feels more like a pretense. This becomes all the more evident in view of the grammar of motives.

Besides the person/non-person grammatical contingency, pronouns also have the contingency of number–singular or plural. Most people refer to themselves with the singular pronouns “I” and “me,” but not everyone. Monarchs have the prerogative of the plural “we” and “us”–the “royal we” as it is called. Just as this usage poses an exception to the grammatical aspect of number, the use of who and whom for horses compromises the aspect of person, and it strikes me that these two aberrations share in the same motive. By way of pronoun reference, certain horses are valorized over other animals just as the monarch is invidiously distinguished from other persons.

Now, imagine how pretentious it would seem to a naive reader of bloodstock writing that employs both forms of this artifice. It’s not unheard of.

And have you noticed, as I have, that in American speech and writing the word “that” is displacing ordinary use of the word “who”? Even speech and writing about thoroughbreds, which insists upon “who” for horses, is abandoning it as a relative pronoun of reference to persons!

This grammatical depersonalization of actual persons seems significant in an age of declining civility and, at least for me, renders the personalization of horses that much more difficult to process.

Exception Proves the Rule

Just to clear up two questions that might arise from my last post on Galileo’s conditions of possible effectiveness (let’s call it CPE) with mares that have Sharpen Up in their ancestries.

First, that post established that Galileo’s probability of siring superior runners out of mares that descend from Sharpen Up through either Kris or Diesis is at least .28. Doubly Sure, the dam of Kris and Diesis, seems to be the key factor, especially considering that Cape Blanco (G1) is out of a daughter of Doubly Sure sired by Presidium, by General Assembly rather than Sharpen Up. That leaves open the question how well Galileo might handle mares in descent of Doubly Sure through her daughters, and I would have mentioned it except that Galileo has had only one such mare.

Second, I mentioned that Galileo had sired a superior runner out of only one mare of the 29 that descended in some way from Sharpen Up, but not through Kris or Diesis. So, the problem is, if descent through Kris or Diesis is a CPE governing Galileo’s relation to Sharpen Up, how can 16.5-f Marathon S. (Sandown, 2010) winner King of Wands (Galileo ex Maid to Treasure, by Rainbow Quest and an image in the Tarot, I believe) be explained? His third dam is by Sharpen Up.

The answer is that, even if a mare fails to fulfill a CPE relating to one of her ancestors, she may still fulfill other CPEs that control a sire’s potential. Now, Galileo doesn’t have a great strike rate with Rainbow Quest–only 4/24–and his record with Blushing Groom is 9/75. What is more likely decisive in the ancestry of King of Wands’ dam is her broodmare sire Indian Ridge, with which Galileo has a strike rate of 4/11. Moreover, his overall record with Indian Ridge’s sire Ahonoora is 6/18. That’s a superior-runner probability of at least .33.

It’s clear, then, that Galileo’s CPE relating to Indian Ridge and Ahonoora, whatever it might be, is far less stringent than his CPE relating to Sharpen Up. Furthermore, because of Sharpen Up’s generational distance in this case, his normal negative effect on foals by Galileo (when not descending through Kris or Diesis) is much less likely to be expressed than the highly favorable effect associated with Indian Ridge.

Discovering the conditions of possible effectiveness is a critical function of pedigree interpretation, and, while it can only yield probabilities comparable to those of, say, short-term weather forecasts, those probabilities are a lot more reliable than reading tea leaves, questioning the Ouija, or trusting in the make-believe deficit reduction in Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.

UPDATE: In the Tarot, the King of Wands denotes the ability to persevere toward a goal, overcoming all obstacles by exceptional means. Seems appropriately named.

The Possible and the Probable

by Roger Lyons

In previous posts I’ve noted that breeding methods are subject to conditions of possible effectiveness. That is to say, any given topic of pedigree discussion–a nick, a method of inbreeding, any combination of one ancestor with another–can yield a stakes winner if certain conditions are met by the specific cross. By definition, a cross that does not meet any conditions of possible effectiveness has virtually no chance of yielding superior performance. We can’t always know whether or not a cross meets conditions of possible effectiveness, but, given what is at stake, any evidence of such conditions is worth considering.

I would go so far as to submit that the conditions of possible effectiveness are crucial to determining the probability of superior performance from a cross. Here’s a case in point.

Last year I mentioned the nick between Galileo and the sons of Doubly Sure–Kris (by Sharpen Up), Diesis (by Sharpen Up), and Presidium (by General Assembly). At that time, 25 mares with one of those three sires in their ancestries had produced foals by Galileo, and six different crosses had yielded superior runners, including three G1 winners (Sixties Icon, Lush Lashes, and Cape Blanco) and New Zealand, which ran second in the Irish St. Leger (G1). Since then, Gallic Star, whose third dam is by Kris, won the listed Silver Tankard S. in England, bringing the total number of superior runners to seven.

Thus, assuming a mare of similar quality in some descent of Kris, Diesis, or Presidium–all out of the mare Doubly Sure–the probability that she can produce a Galileo foal capable of superior performance is at least .28, the probability of a G1 winner at least .12. Don’t get caught up in the fact that Kris and Diesis are by Sharpen Up. Galileo’s record of 7/53 with Sharpen Up suggests only a .13 probability of superior performance (not adjusted for the conditions of possible effectiveness).

But, we know from the numbers that the presence of a son of Doubly Sure in the ancestry of a mare is a condition of possible effectiveness for offspring of Galileo. That condition is met by 24 of the 53 mares with Sharpen Up in their ancestries, and six of those seven dams of superior runners met that condition. This means that Galileo’s strike rate with mares in descent of Sharpen Up, but not through a son of Doubly Sure, was only 1/29, with a probability of only .034 of yielding a superior runner. In other words, those cases do not meet Galileo’s conditions of possible effectiveness with Sharpen Up.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think of the probability of success as a frequency of superior performance from opportunity, but that reasoning goes wrong in thinking of opportunity as nothing more than the number of times a cross has been tried. It might be fair to say that the number of times a cross has been tried constitutes its nominal opportunity, but the real opportunity is defined by the cases that actually meet conditions of possible effectiveness. An “opportunity” that has virtually no chance of success is an opportunity you can do without, especially when trying to pin down a true probability of superior performance.

The Next Little Thing

The ad agencies that want you to think every new gadget represents a “paradigm shift” have rendered that term even less meaningful (although possibly more valuable) than it was when Thomas Kuhn invented it in the early 1960s. To those who actually do science, as opposed to those who sell it, the name Karl Popper is much more important. He was the philosopher of science who showed how knowledge advances by accumulations of the incremental, piecemeal efforts of uncelebrated researchers asking small questions and getting small, but important, answers.

I’m reminded of Popper’s empiricism–and in an ironic way–when I read about the crazy economic policy coming out of both the White House and Paul Ryan’s House budget committee (because a new paradigm in economic policy has no use for the lessons of the past) and, for a different reason, when I’m asked a question about pedigree. Everywhere, people are looking for a paradigm, and it seems like the shiftier it is, the better it sells. The typical pedigree question is right out of the Thomas Kuhn playbook, but it’s still only the little Karl Popper moves that really matter.

My problem with the typical pedigree question is that it’s paradigmatic in scope, which means it has to be deconstructed before it can be answered. For example, how are the Gone West-line sires doing with mares in descent of Mr. Prospector? I might answer that one in the following way, starting with my usual, “Well, it depends.”

All of the Gone West-line sires are managing returns of Mr. Prospector differently from one another. But here’s a way to look at the big picture if that’s what you really want to do. Gone West is by Mr. Prospector, so the cross always involves inbreeding. Breeders are generally sold on that, so it gets lots of opportunity. It happens, though, that every single one of the proven Gone West-line sires has a lower frequency of superior runners from those that are inbred at 4×4 or closer than from those that are not. Insofar as inbreeding to Mr. Prospector figures in that, the picture doesn’t look good, but, again, it depends.

The best way to deal justly with a broad question like that is to give it enough rope to hang itself. It happens, incidentally, that almost all of the A.P. Indy-line sires, most of which have Mr. Prospector in their ancestries, have a higher frequency of superior runners from those that are inbred 4×4 or closer than from those that are not–just the opposite of the Gone West-line sires.

Interesting facts, but facts that have dubious practical import. You’re snake-bitten if you breed the mare to one of the two or three fashionable A.P. Indy-line sires that don’t cope very well with mares in descent of Mr. Prospector.

So, what’s my view of close inbreeding? Well, it depends. . . .