Horse running through field

Pedigree, Conformation, and Zenyatta

by Roger Lyons

My last post explains why a recent post by Frank Mitchell gave me second thoughts about the appropriateness of Giant’s Causeway as a mate for Zenyatta in spite of the sterling statistical profile he has with her ancestry. My underlying point is that what’s on paper can and must be interpreted in light of what’s on the ground–and vice versa. That point drew some thoughtful comments bearing substantively on the case and more generally on the relation between pedigree and conformation.

First, Frank elaborates his reasons for thinking Giant’s Causeway might not be quite right for her, and it has a lot to do with her broodmare sire, Kris S. Frank not only casts his gaze on a lot of horses, but he also measures them, so you can be sure that he’s not speaking from casual observation. When he casts his gaze on Zenyatta, he sees a lot of Kris S. and some Troy, the broodmare sire of her sire, Street Cry.

Then Michele shares the experience, as a breeder, of having tried both approaches–breeding largely on pedigree and, alternatively, breeding largely on conformation, concluding that neither approach seems to make much difference in the frequency of favorable outcomes. Michele’s experiment was not conducted in a lab. It unfolded at much cost and over many years of trying to breed the best horses possible, and, as you read the comment, you get the sense that it rings true.

In the last comment so far, Greg correctly concludes that the distinction between pedigree and conformation is nothing more than a matter of emphasis. After all, he explains, statistical analyses that assess how a given stallion has done with mares representing a given ancestor actually do capture conformation issues–although indirectly. If you read Frank’s “The Weekender Pedigree” (and who doesn’t?) at The Paulick Report, then you know how much he’s into pedigree even though his science is biomechanics. The opposition routinely invoked by the cliche “pedigree vs. conformation” exists only because we associate pedigree analysis with one broad category of facts and conformation with another.

Greg proposes marriage of the two approaches, and he’s right. When Frank says that Kris S. is the major player in Zenyatta’s conformation (note the implication that pedigree and conformation are inseparable), it relieves a lot of statistical pressure. Rather than assuming Zenyatta’s entire ancestry to be more or less uniformly relevant, the focus can shift to Kris S.

Here are the candidates, along with their numbers with mares representing Kris S.: A.P. Indy (2/6), Galileo (1/2 and Frank’s choice), Giant’s Causeway (3/10), Invincible Spirit (1/2), Lemon Drop Kid (1/3), Mineshaft (2/5), Oasis Dream (0/2 with Kris S., but 7/35 with Roberto and great supporting numbers), Speightstown (0/2 with Kris S., but 2/10 with Roberto and good supporting numbers). And, by the way, Songandaprayer is 2/4 with Kris S. and may be a better choice for Zenyatta than better stallions that have poor or questionable numbers with Kris S.

Zenyatta Plus ?

by Roger Lyons

As an earnest reader of Frank Mitchell’s blog, I attended with interest to his remarks about a mate for Zenyatta, especially his misgivings about Giant’s Causeway as a possible match. Now, Frank is an expert in biomechanics, so I’m supposing that, when he says, “I don’t especially like him for this mare,” he means he sees a physical mismatch somewhere along the contours of the two individuals. When Frank speaks, I listen, but I don’t much like what I hear in this case.

That’s because on paper, which is where my life unfolds in this business most of the time, Giant’s Causeway is the best match out there among proven stallions. Don’t get me wrong. Frank’s choice is Galileo, and he also has a great profile on paper, but it’s not as factually confirmable as that of Giant’s Causeway–on paper.

Just for reference, Zenyatta is by Street Cry, by Machiavellian and out of Helen Street, by Troy, and her first, second, and third dams are by Kris S., Forli, and Hoist the Flag, respectively. Giant’s Causeway has had no opportunity with mares by Street Cry (hardly any stallion has), but he has a superior-runner strike rate of 2/7 with Machiavellian and 2/7 with Troy. He’s also 1/2 with Helen Street, the dam of Street Cry, because she’s also the second dam of four-time G1-winner Shamardal, by Giant’s Causeway.

On the other side of her pedigree, Giant’s Causeway has a strike rate of 3/10 with Kris S., 10/117 with Forli (a bit weak, admittedly), and 8/46 with Hoist the Flag. The way I add it up, Zenyatta’s ancestry scores in the 94th percentile of all mares that have been bred to Giant’s Causeway.

I’m not going to get in a fight with Frank over this because I know when to back down. The truth is–as much an embarrassment as it might be to those of us who specialize in pedigree–what’s on the ground has the right to veto what’s on paper. So, I’m going to defer to Frank on this and back Galileo although, in deference to what might actually happen, A.P. Indy has a very good profile, too. The Mr. Prospector-line stallions that have been suggested–not so much.

Quantity and Quality

My last post emphasized the importance of the class of runners representing a given breeding method, as opposed to a high strike rate from opportunity. A conflict between the two arises, for example, in the case of foals that are by Malibu Moon and inbred to Mr. Prospector, which has yielded some few runners of very high class representing a very low strike rate from opportunity. My purpose in bringing up that case was to suggest that class trumps strike rate, but what I didn’t say in that post and must add here, is that such cases, while not particularly rare, certainly are not the norm. Generally, high class and a high strike rate go hand in hand.

Insofar as Zenyatta’s celebrity has transcended her beeding, it’s something of a sacrilege to cite her as a case in point of pedigree, but I’m going to do it anyway because her pedigree context is instructive and, in fact, not entirely unique.

Her sire, Street Cry, has sired foals (through his 2007 crop) out of seven mares with both Hail to Reason and Hoist the Flag in their ancestries, to which in both instances Zenyatta is inbred 5×4. Among those seven foals are Zenyatta herself, Tomcito (Street Cry-Inside or Outside, by Eastern Echo), winner of the Classico Ricardo Ortiz de Zevallos (PER-G1) and the Classico Derby Nacional (PER-G1), and dual-listed SW Alice Belle (Street Cry-Camporese, by Sadler’s Wells). That’s a strike rate of 3/7, including two multiple-G1 winners.

Hail to Reason happens to be one of Street Cry’s favorite ancestors, assured only in part by his strike rate of 5/17 with Seattle Slew. His overall strike rate with Hail to Reason is 16/90, but the gross numbers, as good as they are, actually understate the effect of Hail to Reason. Among those 16 superior runners are five G1 winners, a G2 winner, and four G3 winners–a total of 10 graded/group SWs. Also included in my unofficial tally of probable superior runners is Temple Street (Street Cry-Northside Star by Pulpit), which ran second in the 2009 Humana Distaff H. (G1).

Street Cry’s record with Hoist the Flag stands at 3/18. That’s not a great strike rate, but it’s a good one as far as it has gone, and it’s buoyed by two G1 winners–Zenyatta and Tomcito.

There can be no doubt that Street Cry has a very special relation to Hail to Reason and probably, to a lesser degree, Hoist the Flag. Consider, though, how dubious those strike rates would seem if the class of the runners involved were below overall expectations of Street Cry, rather than above them.

Zenyatta vs. Joe DiMaggio

by Roger Lyons

Hands down, the greatest streak in sports is Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in the season of 1941. I say this advisedly–advised, that is, by an article written by Stephen Jay Gould for The New York Review of Books (August 18, 1988), which I read back then and managed to track down for this occasion in that publication’s online archive. In it, Gould cites Nobel laureate in physics, Edward Mills Purcell, who conducted probability analyses of all recorded streaks in baseball to find out which ones had been likely to occur all along and which ones were utterly improbable. He found that all “fell victim to the laws of probability,” except for Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

That streak is so improbable, Purcell concludes, that “to make it likely (probability greater than 50%) that a run of even 50 games will occur in the history of baseball up to (then), baseball rosters would have to include either four lifetime .400 batters or 52 lifetime .350 batters over careers of one thousand games.” Nobody has ever hit .400 lifetime, and, then as now, only three major league players have had lifetime batting averages over .350–Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Jackson. Joe Dimmagio hit only .325 lifetime.

So, there you are. The question is, how many consecutive races would Zenyatta have to win in order to run up a streak as improbable as that?

I wouldn’t know how to get the right answer, but let’s look at it this way. The nearest any player has approached Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak was Pete Rose’s 44-game streak in 1978, not counting the old record of 45 games set by Willie Keeler in 1896–a different era. Dimaggio’s streak was 1.27 times longer than that of Pete Rose.

But we know from Purcell’s study that a 44-game hitting streak has at least a 50% probability. Every once in awhile someone is going to achieve it even though nobody except Pete Rose has done so lately (kind of like the Triple Crown). Given past racing streaks, I think it’s fair to assume that winning 18 consecutive races–she’s won 19 already–is probable enough to be comparable to a 44-game hitting streak. If so, it would mean Zenyatta could equal Dimaggio’s streak by winning 23 consecutive races.

But it can’t be that simple. She has the very great advantage of entering the starting gate at a chosen time and place, and that depends to some extent on how she’s training. Dimaggio had to step up to the plate every day, wherever the Yankees happened to be playing. Again, I don’t know the technically correct way to do this, but it seems to me Zenyatta would have to win, say, 25–maybe 26–consecutive races in order to be in the same ballpark as Joltin’ Joe.