IS PICKING WINNERS MORE ELUSIVE THAN A SUCCESSFUL MARS LANDING?

Attracted by the 2021 $20 million Saudi Cup and an amazingly rich undercard, I watched a lot of horse racing over the weekend on TVG and Fox Sports.  Maybe the on-air expert handicappers were having a run of bad luck, but overall the value of their picks was, to be charitable, lacking.

This made me reflect on the wondrous landing of Perseverance Mars rover several days earlier.  The rover, whose mission is to search for evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet, touched down on the Mars surface some 293 million miles from Earth.  The rover was programmed to be entirely on its own because the 11-minute communication gap between home base and Mars prevented NASA from directing the landing remotely. 

Why is it that such an amazing technological feat can be achieved whereas skilled horse-racing handicappers, with a vast amount of past-performance data upon which to develop models, struggle to pick winners?  The answer lies in the fact that missions like Perseverance Mars rely on the most advanced engineering knowledge and the laws of mathematics and physics.  By contrast, handicapping horse races falls more into the domain of art rather than science.

Plenty of math whizzes and computer scientists have over the years put their skills to work handicapping horse races…and some have done well.  However, even the most quantitative approaches to handicapping are highly probabilistic.  Indeed, there are many ways to win or lose a horse race that can’t be accounted for in a mathematical model. 

What would happen if the brainpower and scientific know-how of NASA engineers and scientists were put to work handicapping?  I suspect that the effort would produce an above-average outcome but would come nowhere near the accuracy embodied in the Mars landing and exploration.  The rocket scientists would be confounded by inexplicable race results just like the rest of us.

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