If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Bob Baffert knows about the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete. (More about this later.)
My friend Kerry M. Thomas is the founder of The Thomas Herding Technique and creator of Emotional Conformation which is a profiling tool he uses to measure the behavioral and emotional aptitude of his client’s horses.
Here’s how Kerry describes Emotional Conformation in a book we co-authored:
When buying, selling, training or breeding, all horses are graded on Conformation which is an analysis of the overall physical horse. In addition to physical conformation, I grade a horse’s Emotional Conformation which is a term I use to describe the psychology of the horse and I use it to analyze the behavioral dynamics, as well as the social tendencies, that impact the potential of the individual horse. Because the overall mental capacity and aptitude of each horse is made up of both seen and unseen emergent properties and tendencies of behavior, the mental preparedness of a horse, to react and interact with environmental and social dynamics, becomes a vital indicator of its ability and a source of important information for anyone working with horses.
What prompted my reasoning about Baffert was inspired by recent comments at Frank Mitchell’s “bloodstock in the bluegrass” blog about the merits of Lookin At Lucky as a stallion prospect. Of course, Baffert and his horsemanship were also part of that discussion.
I’ve never personally seen Lookin At Lucky or met Mr. Baffert and I have no knowledge of his daily operation. Neither has Kerry seen Lookin At Lucky but he briefly met Baffert last year when he went to California to profile some horses. However, it is difficult to truly know someone in such a short time.
So neither Kerry, nor I, can attest to the horsemanship of Baffert but he evidently has a pretty good knowledge of horses. Baffert has won three Kentucky Derbies, five Preakness Stakes and one Belmont Stakes, mostly with horses that had some sort of imperfection or conformation flaw, and Lookin At Lucky is the most recent example.
Mitchell aptly stated it in his blog post:
From the knees up, Lookin at Lucky is an outstanding animal by every measurement and proof of ability. But looking at his legs from the knees down, I am highly impressed by trainer Bob Baffert’s nerve and by the finesse of his training program for this horse.
Because Lookin at Lucky ain’t perfect.
Despite his flaws, Lookin At Lucky became a Classic Champion Thoroughbred in winning the 2010 Preakness Stakes. In addition, Looking At Lucky won four grade one stakes and three grade two stakes races en route to earning an Eclipse Champion Male award as a 2- and 3-year-old, becoming the only horse to achieve that honor since Spectacular Bid.
Not too shabby for an imperfect horse.
Lookin At Lucky, along with Super Saver, was one of my top picks in the Kentucky Derby and in my blog post I wrote he had the “will to win” despite the fact that he had rough trips in several of his races. If I could see that quality in Looking At Lucky by watching his races on television, surely Baffert saw it, too, in the sales ring.
The late Federico Tesio, a world-renowned owner, breeder and trainer of thoroughbred racehorses, was keenly aware of the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete and he spent hour upon hour at auctions studying the physical and Emotional Conformation of the horses he planned to purchase.
In his book, Tesio, Master of Matings, noted author and bloodstock agent Ken McLean wrote:
His first-hand knowledge of the peculiar characteristics of each individual in his stable, and their subsequent progress on the racetrack enabled Tesio to be in a unique position to judge whether or not his reasoning behind each mating was accurate or otherwise.
Indeed, Tesio knew how to embrace the magic within the spirit of the horse. He was known for his ability to purchase horses with unfashionable pedigrees for his bloodstock program and turn their produce into champion Thoroughbreds. Tesio knew that a horse “wins with his character” and that, in addition to pedigrees and bloodlines, Emotional Conformation is the final piece of the breeding puzzle needed to produce a champion.
And Tesio was good at that. He bred and trained and incredible 22 Italiano Derby winners. His champions Nearco and Ribot are legends of the turf.
Like Tesio, Tom Smith also knew how to embrace the magic within the spirit of the horse. Smith knew about the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete and that is how he turned a down-and-out, neglected, and ragged horse by the name of Seabiscuit into a champion thoroughbred and the hero of a nation.
Smith had seen a spark of magic in the “Biscuit” when, while scouting horses for his new boss Charles Howard, he watched Seabiscuit win an allowance race at Suffolk Downs. Smith knew, then, that he had to have Seabiscuit for his stable.
What impressed Smith the most about Seabiscuit had nothing to do with his racing record, pitiful as it was, or his conformation. Seabiscuit was a knobby-kneed, short, blunt, ragged, loser mostly, who had a wild thrashing and flailing of his left foreleg as he raced around the track.
What impressed Smith the most was the confidence that Seabiscuit displayed as he walked around the Suffolk Downs paddock. Smith knew the difference between a commoner and a King among horses. Seabiscuit had the confident look, the Emotional Conformation of a natural-born herd leader.
Smith knew that look. He had been around horses all of his life and he had seen that look of confidence in other horses.
Of course, while Baffert and Smith have not been as successful as Tesio, it seems they also were able to achieve success from their selection of unfashionable horses. While the term Emotional Conformation was not part of their vocabulary, it was an important factor in how they select[ed] their Thoroughbreds.
I bet that Baffert knows about the importance of Emotional Conformation in the equine athlete.