HBPA Conference: Research Offers Up World Of Possibilities For Horse Racing

by | 03.15.2019 | 10:59am
Dr. Steven Vickner

Economist Steven Vickner, an associate professor in the University of Louisville College of Business' equine industry program, knows the possibilities of cutting-edge research that could help horse racing make smarter business decisions. He just needs the data.

So continued the call Thursday at the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association Convention for greater sharing of data and revved-up analytics.

Vickner described the beneficial ways to “tease out” factors involved in when, why, how and on what people bet as limited only by the access to data. The presentation at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort dovetailed with the new Thoroughbred Idea Foundation's recent white paper advocating that raw data files be provided free to non-commercial entities as well as free past performances of upcoming horse races as ways to spur innovation and encourage new players.

The white paper also recommended partnering “with universities to study racing data, developing new and advanced metrics for the betterment of the sport.” Enter Vickner, who said U of L's goal is to regain its position as the world's academic thought leader on the equine industry.

Vickner, hired by U of L last August, discussed a study model he constructed with his former University of Kentucky student Steve Koch (now the executive director of the Safety & Integrity Alliance of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association) that looked at 1,515 thoroughbred races over 165 days in 2011 at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto to identify factors influencing handle. The leading determinant of per-race handle was field size. Restricted race conditions, such as for Ontario-sired horses, had a negative impact on handle, though larger average field sizes in those races offset the effect. The study also looked at the impact of weather, race distance, surface, off-the-turf races and day of the week and month.

Among the data not reflected was who the horses, jockeys and trainers were in each race. Vickner said it's not simply a matter of looking up the race charts on Equibase for data. In fact, the Woodbine study was possible because Koch was working there at the time, he said.

“Steve had to work with his IT department to get 1,515 rows in that spreadsheet, and literally there are 100 columns,” Vickner, who also did a parallel study of Woodbine's harness racing with 2009 data, said in a conversation after his presentation. “When I say data, it's per-race handle for the win pool, place pool, show pool, Pick 3, Pick 4, every pool. Plus on track vs. simulcasting, plus the weather at each point. So imagine for each and every race you're collecting that level of detail of data. That's hard to get an IT department to create those kinds of special requests. Then what's the temperature, wind and precipitation for each race?”

Beyond the massive time and ensuing expense, some tracks are reluctant to share data because of concern of revealing proprietary secrets or that something might “shine a negative light on a company,” he said, adding that tracks are more likely to feel comfortable sharing old data.

Vickner said that fear should be assuaged once multiple tracks become part of study, where conclusions can be broad-based and individual operations can't be pin-pointed.

He said his research team will be making requests of Equibase, The Jockey Club Information Systems and racetracks for data but wants to do it for upcoming racing rather than for old data. One such project is with Monmouth Park for the New Jersey track's 2019 racing season that will include data from the Monmouth's new sports book. 

“Now you will have a wonderful set of data that everybody is interested in,” Vickner said. “… Then you go to Equibase and say, 'Here's my ask,' rather than expending that on 2011 data. Because that's a big ask.”

Practically speaking, online advance-deposit wagering platforms are the only entities that can reliably provide information on who is betting what and when. Louisville-based AmWager officials said they are excited about the opportunity to collaborate, with founder Nelson Clemmens and simulcasting director Papo Morales (a U of L grad) telling Vickner they will open up all their data to a research project that can advance the sport.

Vickner said U of L ultimately will conduct economic-impact studies on every Kentucky racetrack every year for free as part of the mission of working for the commonwealth's horse industry. He currently has in the works economic-impact studies on Turfway Park and Kentucky Downs for 2018, along with the 2015 Breeders' Cup at Keeneland and 2011 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs.

“The idea is then to show this product to each and every racetrack in America and say, 'Wouldn't you want one of these, too?'” he said.

Vickner also encouraged tracks, horsemen and industry entities to come up with research ideas that could be studied by teams of four or five students.

“I'm soliciting as many ideas as possible from the equine industry, particularly from thoroughbred horse racing, as project ideas. These teams will work under my supervision and it would be a force multiplier,” he said. “I think that's a big opportunity, and these are projects the students would do for free. What we would need would be data, which would be an in-kind contribution.”

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