Have Heart

by Will Carlin

In August of 2013, an Egyptian beer magnate, Ahmed Zayat, was in upstate New York to sell a horse.

Zayat was attending an auction of one-year-old horses in Saratoga Springs, and he wanted to unload his own yearling and perhaps buy a few others.

He was looking to trade up.

Knowing that others had similar motives, Zayat had hired a horse selection firm called EQB, founded by a man named Jeff Seder.

Seder was a bit of a maverick in horse selection. With both an MBA and a law degree from Harvard, Seder and his firm were trying to buck tradition by using data to predict racing greatness.

Historically, horses had been judged primarily by pedigree. Agents and buyers looked closely at a horse’s forbearers hoping that whatever factors made them successful would be passed on.

But when Seder correlated pedigree data and racing achievement, he found that while it mattered, the relationship was surprisingly weak. He thought, however, there must be some essential ingredient that would predict success, and he wanted to find it.
He went to work.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, in his excellent book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, recounts how Seder spent years trying to find the critical component. He started by measuring horses’ noses.

Theorizing that bigger nostrils would allow better breathing and thus better performance (kind of like the idea behind human nasal strips), Seder created the world’s largest database of horse nostrils and looked for a correlation with performance. There wasn’t any.

He then used tape measures to look at the size of horses’ leg muscles and cross referenced them with how well the horses raced. Nope.

He even measured the size of horses’ poop. (The theory was that getting rid of a lot of weight right before a race might affect performance.) Still nothing.

Finally, Seder built the world’s first portable horse ultrasound machine, and with it, he began to measure horse organs, including parts of the heart.

And then he found it. The one big thing.

Seder discovered that the size of a horse’s heart, and in particular, the size of its left ventricle had a massive correlation to its racing performance. There were other things, too: the size of the spleen, certain kinds of gait, and whether a horse wheezed after a short run. But the left ventricle was the key.

Capturing and analyzing heart data was also the key to the Professional Squash Association teaming up with a company called Sports Data Labs. Using wearable sensors and a transmission and data platform, Sports Data Labs has pioneered a way to measure, record and display real-time heart rates of professional athletes.

After pro players wore the sensors at early-season PSA tournaments (where some of these data were shown live to viewers on PSA Squash TV), Sports Data Labs released a compelling aggregated analysis in April of 2018. It reported that players’ heart rates peaked regularly between 190-199 bpm, with the average recorded heart rate reaching 171.

The data not only confirmed the supreme physical demands required to play the game at the pro level, but also reinforced the 2003 Forbes Magazine assertion that squash is the world’s healthiest sport.

Another company analyzing squash data, interactiveSquash, recently developed and rolled out something they call a squash Motion Tracking System (or ‘MoTrack’) that provides real-time analysis of player and ball movement.

Looking at things like the speed of and distances covered by players during games, the velocity and trajectory of the ball off the front wall, and the areas of the court that become tactical hot zones, MoTrack has found that in an average 52-minute match, pro players cover over 2.5 kilometers (with many changes of direction and lunges), strike the ball well over 500 times, and keep the ball in play for 33 minutes or 63% of the time (compared with 5% for football, 17% for tennis, 35% for basketball, and 50% for soccer – the next highest after squash).

Will this eventually lead researchers to be able to determine squash’s one big thing? Well, squash is complicated, with hard-to-measure factors like hand-eye coordination, stroke production, ball-tracking ability, and, perhaps most importantly, the amount (rather than the dimensions) of “heart” it takes to win.

Seder, however, was focused on size. He had to be careful because many horses with large left ventricles have diseases that lead to very small other organs and deformed ventricles.

So when he found a stunningly large left ventricle at the Saratoga yearling auction, he initially was cautious. Even more so because the horse was only average in height (56th percentile), weight (61st percentile) and pedigree (70th percentile).
But this horse (which didn’t yet have a name and was referred to by his stall number: No. 85) had large organs all around, and his left ventricle was enormous, measuring in the 99.61st percentile.

Seder reported to Zayat that this horse had more potential than all 151 other horses at the auction. Then he added one more thing: “You already own him.”

No. 85 was the very horse Zayat had come to sell. Knowing that Zayat had some debt issues, Seder implored him: “Sell your house. Do not sell this horse.”

Because the horse already had been put up for auction, rules prevent an owner from just pulling the horse, so Zayat, using a pseudonym, bought back his own horse for $300,000. It was worth it.

A little less than two years later, on a warm June afternoon in 2015, No. 85 won his third race in a row in New York. You know the name of the races (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes), and because he was the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown, you know his name.

American Pharaoh.