When American Pharoah was preparing to race in the Belmont Stakes last season, most analysts were not too rosy on his odds of securing the first triple crown since Affirmed in 1978.
Sure, Pharoah was an overwhelming favorite at sportsbooks and betting sites, but arguments abounded for why the window to win horse racing’s greatest honor had closed. The data journalism magnates at FiveThirtyEight wrote a story about how specialization toward the shorter Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes seemed to be ruining contestants’ chances at the Belmont. Meanwhile, Wired Magazine wrote a feature that argued, literally, that “Science says American Pharoah won’t win the triple crown.” Science!
Of course, we all know what happened next, as Pharoah ended the 37-year crown drought and went on to become the first ever horse to win a horse racing “grand slam” (the fourth event of which, it should be noted, has only been around since the ’80s). So, now that another year’s Derby is in the books, it’s time to ask an important question: was Pharoah just a universe-defying superhorse, or is the triple crown a little bit easier to win than people think?
The problem with the grand arguments about the jump in difficulty in completing a triple crown is that they’re absurdly difficult to prove with any sort of concrete evidence. There are a lot of things that have changed since the crown drought started – stud fees started soaring, horses started slowing down, Kobe Bryant was born – but it’s tough to determine which (if any) were actually relevant to bringing about the drought itself. Unlike most sports, you can’t actually ask the athletes themselves, and with many epic campaigns coming down to a single 1 1/2-mile race, it’s hard to know exactly how significantly randomness plays a factor.
Admittedly, some theories do make more sense than others, and it’s likely that more than one of them contributed to the years of silence. It seems legitimately possible, for instance, that at least some of the Derby and Preakness winners have trained more for shorter distances, which may partially explain why a horse has won the first two legs of the crown almost every other year since 1997 versus more like once in every three years before that. Another variable that may have played a role (which I referenced in my column about the triple crown last year) is the injury record of recent contenders. Of the 12 horses that tried and failed for the crown, at least four had some claims to not being in top form for the Belmont – even one win out of this group could have dramatically altered the nature of the drought.
The task of predicting whether this year’s Derby winner, Nyquist, has a shot at the next two legs thus comes down to predicting how he ranks in some of these factors and which particular factors will become relevant to his case. In all honesty, neither of these can be done with certainty. Nyquist’s propensity for injury is unknowable and his ability to go the distance is unproven. He had never run an event as long as he did at Churchill Downs, and while skepticism of his ability to run 10 furlongs clearly proved unfounded when he recorded the fastest Derby time since 2003 it still does not prove he’ll be the most talented three-year-old at running 12.
This uncertainty is why even some of the most intelligent sources have no real idea what will happen – or even what should happen – and most of the narratives about what did happen only can be written after the fact. These explanations can be more or less compelling, but they are often highly specific and not necessarily all that testable and, as a result, they don’t give us all that much insight. To put it another way, it would be one thing if someone had predicted the crown drought in 1978 with a sensical and universal theory. When most options are just trends extrapolated from a few data points, however, it’s not all that predictive or impressive.
Ultimately, then, the answer to the question I pose at the end of my third paragraph is that nobody really knows. There are credible cases to be made that what Pharoah accomplished will almost never happen again and equally credible cases that lead to Nyquist doing it within the next four weeks. Until the next revolution in horse racing analytics, however, choosing between these paths will remain absurdly difficult in advance, and virtually no legitimate outcome should lead to great surprise.
It’s clear that the stars must still align for Nyquist to capture a crown. But it’s possible that this might not happen as infrequently as you’d think.
Do you think Nyquist will win a triple crown? Tell Andrew Mather yea or nay (rather, neigh) at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.