The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Kerry Thomas Strikes Again

by | 05.08.2013 | 1:15pm
Kerry Thomas working with "Cricket"

Two years ago, we featured a report by a relatively unknown “herd whisperer” named Kerry Thomas. Essentially, Thomas provided a psychoanalysis of the Derby field, using terms like “emotional conformation,” “herd dynamics,” and “time in motion.”  To some, it was an intriguing new way to look at the race. To others, it sounded kooky.

After watching the contenders' previous races, Thomas gave his highest marks to favorite Dialed In and 20-1 longshot Animal Kingdom.  As we know, Animal Kingdom ran to his profile, won the Derby, and as Thomas predicted at the time, he also went on to do well overseas, winning this year's Dubai World Cup.

Thomas replicated his report for the 2012 Derby and while he thought several contenders had interesting profiles, before the race he told us his top horse was – you guessed it – I'll Have Another.

I'll admit, despite his choice of Animal Kingdom among the longshots the year before, I didn't give the report too much thought.  But you can bet after I watched I'll Have Another romp home in the Derby at 15-1 that I was eagerly awaiting this year's installment, which was available through Brisnet.

It could not have been more clear who Thomas thought was the superior horse in this field, and in fact, the report explicitly said Orb was his top-rated horse:

“Orb is extremely versatile. He shows no sticking points or mental weaknesses. He operates strongly in traffic or in open space. He never shows a tendency to mimic the rhythm of any other horse (weaker horses sometimes do this for comfort). Orb is above them.”

That's three years in a row the Thomas Herding Technique‘s profiles have pointed toward the winner of the Kentucky Derby, based on emotional conformation and “patterns of motion analysis.” For those interested in digging deeper into his work, Thomas has a new book called Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes.

But following Orb's Derby 139 victory, I spoke to Thomas about the race, the winner, and what he does.

For those who aren't familiar with your work, how do you briefly explain it to people?
Essentially my job as a profiler is to tell someone who their horse is. We all know what the horse is. My job is to identify the ingredients that make up their emotional conformation and basically how a horse is interpreting the world. I work to identify patterns of motion and how a horse is reacting to the interpretations around them. Every horse is its own independent case study. It' s a pretty fascinating study to see how a horse is interpreting the world and how they're reacting and responding to those things and what their tendencies are. That makes it sound simple. It's certainly anything but simple. Essentially, my job is to tell you about the pilot of your airplane.

Why is that important in a horse race?
It's very important in a horse race because number one, patterns of behavior do translate to patterns of motion, and what that really means is, you know, they're kind of like us. We know we have friends that we can call upon if we have a flat tire, and we know we have certain friends we can call upon in a family emergency or to go to a party with, and they might not be the same person. But because of their personality traits and who they are and our understanding of that, we know what we can count on them for and what we cannot. And the horse is much the same way. Understanding how your horse is interpreting their environment, what their tendencies are. These things all play a very important part of their emotional conformation and how they're likely to handle situational chaos.

How are you able to assess that just from film study?
Obviously there's a lot more depth that I can get when I am doing film study and also profiling the horse in person, but from film study – and we've been pretty accurate in the last several years especially – one of the tools I use is micro-facial expression analysis. Basically, I am doing a frame-by-frame analysis of the horse in different situations in a race, and especially when I have two or three or four or how many ever races I can, I begin to identify and look for patterns in that motion. And I'm looking for things that are consistent, and things that are inconsistent, and how the horse is likely to react… Like for the Derby, when I'm doing race profiles, all I have is the film footage. I don't have any behind-the-scenes information about the horse. I've never met the horse in most cases. I don't know how the horse has been training, how they're being handled. Everything I can go on is what I see in film, and it does tell you a great deal.

It's pretty amazing that from film, you're able to create a profile that seems so accurate. These horses seem to do the things you say they're going to do.
I guess it seems simple from the outside looking in. If you watch the horses, they do pretty much run to their profiles. I'm not a handicapper. I don't bet myself. What I am is a horse researcher. I study these things, and I'm identifying what I'm seeing. It's been thousands and thousands of film footage and horses along the path. I can pick things out really quickly. I can find these patterns. I just know what I'm looking for. I've looked at lot of different puzzle pieces over the years, and you make a lot of mistakes. You get back up, you find out what doesn't work. You may look at 20 different things and find one of those things being consistent over and over again.

Your profile said Orb was in the top 1% of all horses. Why?
I'll tell you, I'm chomping at the bit. I would give anything to profile this horse in person. But what I can tell you, by watching his races, and not only his races, but the influence he has on other horses, one of the biggest things that tells you where a horse is at in the herd dynamics is not just how they're reacting to the stimulus themselves but how are other horses reacting to them? Are they causing reactions? If a horse is managing the motion of other horses and impacting them by doing things hardly perceptible by the eye, it looks like it's completely effortless. Some horses will just get pushed out of the way, and it looks like they gave up. But for all intents and purposes, they were deferring to a higher level horse.

Verrazano, in his races, he ran almost the exactly same kind of emotion every time I saw him race. My question: I'd never had to seem him deal with a whole bunch of chaos, so I didn't know how he was going to react. But with the running style of Orb, he had done enough of this stuff, and I'd seen enough of other horses deferring, that I thought this was a complete standout. And it's about one out of every 100 horses that have that capacity… Only a small percentage of horses have the communication skills and what I would call the mental aptitude to be high level leaders and impact other horses the way they do.

I'm very excited personally by the potential we have in this horse. Wherever he finishes physically, I don't see another horse out there beating him mentally.

Where do rate the influence of the fast pace on this Derby?
It does have an influence, we can't deny that. But in my opinion, the longer a horse is in motion, the less the pace, as far as the speed figures, matter. Look at what I'll Have Another did to the bullet, Bodemeister in both races last year. He was able to dial him in. It's because horses will naturally defer and fall into place. The shorter the race the more important the speed figures because the herd dynamics take time in motion to flesh themselves out.

What does Orb have in common with the previous two winners, I'll Have Another and Animal Kingdom?
With I'll Have Another, what they have in common is a very methodical strategy. Both of those horses, they didn't alter their mental conditioning to fit a circumstance. They changed the circumstances while they were moving… For I'll Have Another, the mile and a half distance of the Belmont would have been an absolute cakewalk as far as physical distance for a horse like that. His mental condition was stronger as time went on. I see that with Orb. The more time in motion, the stronger this horse is because he's not wasting any emotional energy. He's not overreacting to anything, so he's not compromising his physical energy or his focus.

And Animal Kingdom and Orb have a lot in common in the area of presence, this feel, this impact, what I call the “egg” around the horse. Animal Kingdom might not have run as far that way as say, I'll Have Another, but he did run with more presence I think. Orb actually has, from what I can tell so far, a combination of these two things, which is kind of scary in a way. Honestly, from a herd dynamics standpoint, neither of those other two horses are better than him. If anything, they're equal or he's a little bit better than they were mentally. We're talking about splitting hairs here, but I'm super excited by the mental pulls I see in Orb, as far as the chance to give us something special.

And he is something special. No matter what happens, it's not going to change my perception of him. It doesn't matter to me where he finishes across that finish line in Baltimore. I care more about how a horse is impacting other horses and how they're handling situational chaos then I do where they cross the finish line. In my opinion, Zenyatta, psychologically, is undefeated. She may have had that one hair-loss, but mentally she was never beaten, and that's what stands out to me.

So, I assume, then, you think Orb has a good chance of winning the Triple Crown?
I do. I'm not here to predict the future, but what I will predict is that he will run to the best of his ability and if that's what gets him across the finish line first, then that's great, but I do think he has the tools.

Did anyone else stand out to you in the Derby?
To me, Revolutionary ran the way I thought he may run personally, based on the competition. I still have a spot in my heart for a horse like Normandy Invasion because he does so many things well. My concern with Normandy Invasion was, if he had to burn too much on the individual dynamic early in the race, I thought it might compromise him. If he stays out of trouble and can have that one power move at the end… I still believe in that horse. I still believe in a horse like Verrazano.

But you know, some of these horses that you see are very dependent upon the trip and how often do we see that? The horses that are in the top 15%, which usually in a Grade 2, Grade 3, they're going to clean house, but when they get up in competition, things get compromised and they need to have a consistent and methodical trip that they're comfortable with. But a horse like Orb, I don't necessarily think there is a perfect trip for him as far as having to have it because I think he makes his own trip.

He ran farther than most of the horses in the Derby.
You know what was so interesting about the race, if you watch the homestretch, you'll see the horses when he's going past them, if you slow it down, it's almost like they're getting sucked into a void. And what that is, it's a ripple effect. When you have a horse that's at a high level of the herd dynamics, it's kind of like us. When we walk onto a playground or a baseball field, it doesn't take too long to get a sense of who's who. It's just something you don't have to even say, you just feel it. When my dad walked into a room, I could feel his presence and I responded to it. And you'll see high level horses cause those types of reactions in other horses.

Does Orb show signs of being a leader before the race?
Here's something to keep in mind. One of the tricks Mother Nature uses to protect her leadership is that she conceals it. And how do you conceal an animal that lives in open space, in a herd? Well, you conceal by those animals at high levels basically turning into ghosts. So, they don't stand out to a predator's eye. So in a lot of chaos, what you won't see is much body language. You're not going to see a lot of physical gyrations, unless the horse chooses to do it. Zenyatta did her dance, but that was her expression. When she got into chaos, you didn't see her wasting any physical motion. And the same with a horse like Orb. What I would expect to see is very little, a lot of ear targeting. I would not expect him to do anything like, look at me. In nature, you can afford to lose the bottom of your herd, but you can't afford to lose the top level because the rest of it doesn't survive.

How did you learn to do all of this?
I learned to do this over a long period of time studying horses both in the wild and domestic. It's very interesting because I'm colorblind. I couldn't study them by their phenotypes. I couldn't see their colors really. And when you take away what you're normally used to seeing, and you're forced to identify them on communication… for example mustangs in the wild. When you're 70 yards away and looking through binoculars, they're pretty much the same size and they're pretty much the same color and that's by design. So, how do you separate these animals? Well, you separate them by, for a lack of a better term, their personalities and their emotional conformation. And once I started to focus on that, it was like peering into this window of the invisible. And what I realized was that communication, just like in our lives, governs everything…

I'm learning every day. I don't want anyone to think I'm an expert because I'm not. I'm a student who is continuing to research and continuing to learn, and continuing to find ways to help the process.

What kind of reaction do you get from people? Do you some people saying this is crazy?
Yeah. It's never easy being a new pebble in an old pond, if you will. The reactions are usually a mixed bag. When I first started doing the Derby profiles, we got “lucky” the first time. But there was a lot of talk. I honestly don't pay a lot of attention to that because I have too much work to do. I have too much to learn. But the further you go along, the proof is in the pudding. I'm not making this stuff up. This is Mother Nature's plan. These things happen for a reason, and I'm not reinventing the wheel here, I'm studying how this wheel is spinning and trying to bring innovative ways to apply this, to help the sport.

I love racing. One of the reactions I get from non-racing people, I can't believe, you love horses so much and you're trying to do all these great things for horses, why are you into racing? Because I love it. First of all, racing is far more natural for a horse to do than most any other sport. Think about it. Do you see horses out in the prairie jumping over logs for fun? I don't think so. Do you see them dancing in a ring? No. Do you see them running? Oh, yes. A lot. Therefore, I'm a big supporter of racing because it is natural. They love to do it. Do we have good things in the industry and bad things? Well, what industry doesn't? That doesn't mean you shouldn't be involved in it.

Have you seen interest in your work from “casual fans” of racing?
One of the things I'm beginning to see is there's a lot of what I call the fringe fans. They watch the big races but they don't really follow horse racing because they don't understand it. They're not going to understand the numbers. They're not going to buy past performances and understand all those lines. But they love horses and they do understand… it's like looking on the back of a baseball card, you may not look at the stats first. You're going to look at what that person's favorite color is, where they went to high school and how many kids they have. That's the human interest kind of stuff.

And that's essentially what I've found with these profiles, with the 400-plus emails I received after the Derby, is that from around the world, the most interesting part is you're bringing a different viewpoint to the horses for the people who don't understand the other things. It makes it a lot more fun. That's a good thing because if we can show the horses in a different way to the folks on the outside looking in, we'll have more interest. How much fun would it be if you had a baseball card for a horse, and you had their racing information on there and also this psychological profile?

To me, what we're missing is this sense of connection. What we have to provide for the people on the fringe of our fan base, to save ourselves, to save the sport, we need to grow the sport by generating emotional connections…

I have a lot of people that don't even bet that buy the report. I can't tell you how many people have sent me emails, which is very flattering, that I've never watched a race the same way before, and it made a lot more sense to me, and it was a lot more fun. Thank you. Now, all of the sudden, we're broadening the sport. We're broadening the fan base.

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