Simon Rowlands: In Defence of Inferential Comparison

Simon thinks comparisons between Frankel and former champions are possible

In the wake of Frankel's retirement, and in the context of discussions of his greatness or simply his ability, the phrase "there is no point in comparing different horses under different circumstances and at different times" has possibly never been used so often. It almost seems to have become a mantra for some.

"Not everyone is going to agree with the ratings that we, at Timeform, compile, or with the way we go about compiling them. But we can at least claim to have taken considerable care to make those ratings comparable..."

The sentiments have a veneer of common sense, but let's just consider what they mean and how closely they stand inspection.

The truth is that racing and betting are predicated on inferential comparison, on comparison in which assumptions and facts from one context inform our views in another. It is a large part of what makes those activities - of following racing or having a bet - so appealing.

We have no way of knowing for sure what the outcome of a race will be, for it is never a repeat of what has gone before. This uncertainty does not stop us trying to figure out what is what. Indeed, quite the opposite: much of the interest lies in doing exactly that.

Inferential comparison is what causes us to favour one horse over another despite their having never met. Inferential comparison is also what causes us to go against the favoured horse if we think the potential reward will justify the risk.

It is not clear who first coined the phrase "comparisons are odious", but I am willing to wager that the person in question was lousy at betting.

It is not necessary for Frankel to have run against a horse like Trending - a winner of modest handicaps in 2012 - in order for us to be certain that the former was a better horse.

It is more difficult to be sure that Frankel was a better horse than Camelot - winner of the 2000 Guineas and The Derby in the latest year - but there is more than enough information out there to make an educated guess without the two horses ever having met on the track.

It is only a further step - if one many are surprisingly reluctant to take - to compare Camelot with, say, another recent Derby winner in Sea The Stars, or even with a Derby winner or non-Derby winner from much further back in time.

The information exists on which to form a view, if you can be bothered to find it and to make sense of it.

"Forming a view" is what it is all about. The accuracy with which you are able to form a view, and carry that view forward to different circumstances, will be tested in the crucible of competition and in the betting market. Betting, and to a degree racing, exists because people have different views and views of different worth.

There are many ways in which comparisons can be made, of which ratings are just one. But ratings - in which races and the individual horses within those races are assessed - provide a framework for measurement and for comparison that can hold true in a wider context and across time.

Not everyone is going to agree with the ratings that we, at Timeform, compile, or with the way we go about compiling them. But we can at least claim to have taken considerable care to make those ratings comparable, through statistical and standardisation procedures, so that a 70-rated horse in one context is comparable with a 70-rated horse in another, and so that a 147-rated horse in 2012 can be considered superior in terms of ability to a 140-rated horse in 1986.

If nothing else, anyone who describes this task as "very difficult", or even "impossible", should consider taking up another job or hobby.

The next time you hear someone on television or radio, or read something in a paper or on a social-media site, claiming "there is no point in comparing different horses under different circumstances and at different times" take it as encouragement, for it is most likely evidence of a facile desire to appear profound while ducking having an opinion.

My advice? For the punters among you, it is simple: in the words of the (ubiquitous and endlessly irritating) advert "Go Compare!!"

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