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Mark Coomes: 'Horse Whisperer' beats handicappers, uses behavior profiling to pick last two Derby longshots

by Mark Coomes

Kerry Thomas

Kerry Thomas, a self-modeled horse behaviorist, checks out the mannerisms of a prospect at Pine Knoll Farm in Lexington. Thomas, who until recently was an unknown in the racing industry, has used his insights into equine body language and personality to pick the last two longeshot Derby winners.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled coverage of regular sports to turn our attention to a sport with no balls.

(Quite literally in the case of that most unfortunate of creatures, the gelding.)

The Kentucky Derby is just 80 days away, and with March Madness around the corner, our fair state’s annual basketball blackout is looming. Now seemed like a good time to slip in a few words about horses, before the monomania sets in.

Perhaps you’re not in the mood. Fine. I’m prepared to conquer your apathy with an appeal to baser instincts.

Greed and vanity. Money and prestige.

I’m prepared to show you an innovative way to handicap America’s most famous (and parimutuelly lucrative) horse race.

A way that turned $2 into $30 and $40 over the past two years.

It’s said that money won is twice as sweet as money earned.  That’s doubly true with money won on the Derby because, around here, bragging rights accrue to those who pick Derby winners.

It ain’t easy.

But there’s this guy from Pennsylvania who has picked the last two Derby winners, both longshots, and he did it in a most ingenious way.

He used no speed figures, no class evaluation, none of the traditional handicapping tools. He used behavioral profiling.

That is, he examined the way horses behave during a race, and by applying hard-earned, grassroots knowledge of equine psychology, he identified the horses that possessed the mentality and temperament required to win the wild, 2-minute stampede staged at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Go ahead, laugh.

Horses have personalities? And those personalities are as vital to winning as speed and endurance? Hardy har har.

Be advised, however, that those who paid heed to the new-age observations of Kerry Thomas laughed all the way to the bank in recent years. Animal Kingdom was 21-1 in 2011. I’ll Have Another was 15-1 last May.

Both horses were overlooked by the “experts” – touts and turfwriters and such. The real expert, as it turned out, was a nobody from Cochranville, Pa.

Kerry Thomas

Thomas consults with John Shirreffs (in cap), the trainer of Zenyatta and Giacomo, the 2005 Derby winner.

Kerry Thomas isn’t a nobody anymore. His big-dollar Derby picks have convinced a growing number of fans and horsemen that there’s a method to his madness.

Humana flew Thomas in last May to share his insights with the company’s well-heeled Derby guests. Princess Alia bint Al Hussein flew Thomas to Jordan to evaluate the herd dynamics of her racing and breeding operation.

He also published a book last year, “Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes.” He has opened a training center in Nicholasville, Ky.

A TV show is in the works. Kerry Thomas, Horse Whisperer – that sort of thing.

“It’s been pretty amazing,” Thomas said. “I’ve gotten emails and messages from as far away as Australia and Hong Kong. Things just went from zero from 60 after Animal Kingdom.”

The breakthrough happened like so:

Thomas, 44, was mostly working with hunter-jumpers and dressage horses when, in April 2011, the website Kentucky Confidential asked him to provide psychological scouting reports on the 19 entrants. Only two stood out – Dialed In, the favorite, and Animal Kingdom, an obscurely bred outsider who had never even raced on dirt before.

“It will be a hell of a battle to watch if (Animal Kingdom) and Dialed In hook up in the Derby,” Thomas wrote. “Those two have the most complete emotional conformation profiles in this race.”
Dialed In got hung up and finished eighth that day. Animal Kingdom calmly picked his way through the crowd of boisterous 3-year-olds, and with an emphatic burst over the final 1/8-mile, made the whole lot eat his dust.

Thomas doesn’t bet and he doesn’t tout, but he privately told friends that he preferred Animal Kingdom. He did the same last year with I’ll Have Another, one of three horses in the 2012 field who, Thomas wrote, owned “nearly perfect emotional conformation profiles.”

What exactly does that mean?

It’s hard to explain. Perhaps the best elucidation lies in excerpts from Thomas’ profile of Animal Kingdom.

“He is always in self-control. … This horse’s mental capacity rises to the occasion. … The more time in motion, the stronger he gets.”

Here is Thomas’ take on I’ll Have Another, who probably would have won the Triple Crown if an injury hadn’t forced him to scratch from the Belmont Stakes.

“The Derby distance is not going to be a problem. … He’s not a horse that wastes any emotional energy. Psychologically, this horse was bred to run a classic distance. Other horses respond to his presence, and he makes no physical effort to invoke their reactions. That means he is a very powerful horse.”

Skeptics scoff at Thomas’ psychobabble, though heaven knows why.

Anyone who has ever owned a dog or cat knows that animals have personalities. Some are dominant, some are deferential. The group dynamics of all mammals, humans included, are influenced by the presence of an alpha male.

A real world example:

“It’s like when my dad walked into a room,” Thomas said. “He didn’t have to say anything. I just knew he was there, and the whole way I acted and reacted changed in his presence. This is exactly what happens with high-level horses.”

Of course it does.

But it takes more than alpha power to win a stakes race of 1 mile or more. For one thing, top-class horses rarely defer to each other. Most stakes-caliber animals own alpha characteristics that helped them rise to the sport’s highest level.

When fitness, physical talent and alphaness are roughly equal, the difference between winning and losing is usually mental.

“Emotional conformation manages physical output,” Thomas said. “Humans are no different. Some people perform well under stress and some don’t. It’s just who they are.”

Horse races are an exercise in controlled chaos. Half-ton animals fight for position at 35 miles an hour while processing an endless stream of stimuli. The longer the race – or larger the field – the more important it is for a horse to maintain his composure while moving through the herd, never wasting energy on nervous tics or pointless turf wars.

Derby winners are, in short, those who keep their heads when all around them are losing theirs.

“The Kentucky Derby is a great application for Kerry’s work,” said Pete Denk, a turfwriter who doubles as director of equine services for Thomas Herding Techniques. “Kerry is very good at watching horses and analyzing their minds from a distance aptitude standpoint.”

E.g., Thomas’ pick in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic was Drosselmeyer, a grinder dismissed by bettors at 15-1. Rightly so. Drosselmeyer had won only one graded stake in his life – and not for lack of trying.

So why did Thomas pick him? He liked Drosselmeyer’s “methodical decision making.”

The previous year, Drosselmeyer won the Belmont, America’s longest dirt race. He won the Classic in similar style, by wearing down a fleet frontrunner in deep stretch.

Drosselmeyer was nothing if not methodical; a plodder, in racing parlance. But Thomas says plodding reflects mental strength more than physical limitation.

“Any event that requires endurance becomes mind over body,” Thomas said. “That’s true of any athlete. When the body starts to hurt, only the mind can make the body overcome the pain. High-class horses do that just like humans do.”

Thomas deduces equine personality by observing body language and, believe it or not, “microfacial expressions.” It sounds silly – unless you’ve spent hundreds of hours watching horses interact in the wild.

Having decided that “colleges weren’t teaching what I wanted to learn,” Thomas went out west in 1989 to study the predatory habits of grizzly bears and mountain lions. Over time, he grew captivated by the mustang herds that roamed Wyoming and Montana.

Thomas is colorblind. The impairment was an asset.

“It was like looking through a window into the invisible,” Thomas said. ““In order to discern one horse from the next, I didn’t have any choice but to focus on who they were instead of what they were. Instead of their physical conformation, it was their emotional conformation that began to stand out.”

Thomas has been too busy evaluating clients’ horses to scrutinize this year’s top Derby contenders. He’ll get around to it, though. He plans to monetize his insights this spring by selling a Derby scouting report through Brisnet.

The details aren’t fully worked out. The report will cost around $20. The means of procuring the report will be announced via Twitter (follow @thomasherding or @petedenk).

It will be worth the double sawbuck. Thomas says 75% of a typical Derby field is mentally incapable of winning such a long, loud, difficult race. His psychoscouting cuts a 20-horse morass down to four or five legitimate contenders.

In recent years, Thomas’ observations have let smart players confidently toss such well-bet horses as Archarcharch, Soldat, Midnight Interlude, Hansen, Gemologist and Daddy Nose Best.

On the other hand, the top five finishers in 2011 and 2012 all got good to glowing reviews.

Thomas doesn’t claim that his emotional profiles are a Rosetta stone to instant riches, but little doubt remains as to the quality of his observations.

He says Australians and Europeans have been quicker to adopt his theories than have Americans. No surprise there. America’s hidebound racing establishment is notoriously slow to embrace new ideas (unless they pertain to advances in veterinary pharmaceuticals).

Thomas, a cheerful, talkative fellow, is not concerned.

“I’m a new pebble in an old pond,” he said. “It takes time for ideas to catch on. But it’ll happen.”

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