Before the Kentucky Derby, a Horse ‘Detective’ Rates Herd Mentality
Equine athletes need stable state of mind, researcher says; ‘emotional conformation’
April 30, 2015 6:30 p.m. ET
Before placing their Kentucky Derby bets, handicappers will consult any and all data: the horse
Mr. Thomas’s adherents include hobby handicappers, as well as millionaires and royalty, who have sought his advice when buying race horses, calming show ponies or returning a stallion to “his happy place,” Mr. Thomas’s euphemism for a stud’s libido.
Jordan’s Princess Alia Al Hussein flew him to Amman to profile her Arabian show horses, one of which seemed to have decided that he was done with the whole pony show.
“He just hated showing, and we didn’t know why,” said Princess Alia. She said Mr. Thomas determined that the horse was fine, but eccentric, and suggested new handling approaches that contributed to an attitude adjustment.
Jolly in demeanor and physique, Mr. Thomas, 46 years old, is an independent researcher who regularly wears an Akubra, the Australian hat worn by Paul Hogan in “Crocodile Dundee.” When he talks about horses, he tosses around phrases like “mental efficiency zone” or “emotional conformation,” occasionally prompting his business partner, Pete Denk, a former racing journalist, to decipher his comments in layman’s terms.
One term Mr. Thomas doesn’t care for: “horse whisperer.”
“It conjures thoughts of an old cowboy or a hippie who talks to the horse. That’s not what I do,” he said. “I feel like a doctor. Or a detective.”
The Thomas Herding Technique, as he calls it, is his method of evaluating equine athletes, to find those that are the most efficient in interpreting external stimuli—anything from loud noises to other horses.
He takes note of herd dynamics and “jostling of hierarchy” when horses are near each other, behavior he learned to pay attention to over hours observing wild horses inWyoming and Montana. It isn’t unlike the way basketball teams size each other up when players shoot rounds before a game, he said.
“You’re looking at who is taking shots and who looks more athletic. There is a communication going on,” he said. “You get this vibe: ‘I got you. Maybe I’m a little afraid of you.’”
Calm horses rank high on his rating system. “Just like any athlete, the ones who can handle stress and perform under pressure excel on a consistent basis,” Mr. Thomas said.
To create a horse’s emotional profile, he enters their personal space, or “egg,” as he calls the area around a horse that it can easily see. He kneels a few feet away so the animal can see he isn’t a threat.
As he approaches the horse, he looks for the sequencing of ear twitches and eye flickers, as well as tics that he says might signal a mental weakness. Before the Derby, he can’t meet every horse, though he happened to profile some when they were for sale at auctions over the last few years.
For his Derby analysis, he replays videos of the season’s prep races, to see how horses move within the herd.
“He has a very very high herd dynamic in that he is always in self-control,” Mr. Thomas wrote in 2011 of Animal Kingdom, who went on to win that year’s Derby.
He doesn’t always get it right. That year, he was equally high on Dialed In, writing that he “has the emotional command over space to win the Triple Crown.”
Dialed In finished eighth in the Derby, then fourth in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.
“Kerry is not going to be right 100% of the time, and he doesn’t say that he will be,” said Kylie Bax, an actress and model who now breeds and races horses in New Zealand.
Those who use his report, which costs $20, understand he isn’t pointing to the fastest of the field. He’s trying to find the boldest of the newbies.
That is important in the Kentucky Derby because it is such an unusual race, exposing three-year-old horses—the gawky teenagers of the equine world—to more distraction than they have ever encountered.
Most haven’t heard anything as loud as the roar of 150,000 cheering fans. And after a season of races against roughly six to 10 other horses, they are about to learn to run against 19 others.
The chaos can overwhelm a horse in the mile-and-a-quarter, $2 million race at Churchill Downs.
“He’s not a horse that wastes any emotional energy,” Mr. Thomas wrote about one contender. “This horse doesn’t panic.”
That was his pre-race assessment of I’ll Have Another, who won both the 2012 Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
Some longtime observers aren’t buying it. “I’m old school,” said Churchill Downs’s oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. “It’s not for me, but it may work for other people.”
Mr. Thomas himself doesn’t bet and he’s not a regular around racetracks.
Based in Cochranville, Pa., about an hour from Philadelphia, he is more likely to be found advising buyers at auctions or in their far-flung barns.
In New Zealand, he profiled broodmares and racehorses for Ms. Bax. She uses Mr. Thomas’s advice, along with that of a bloodstock agent, who examines pedigrees, and a veterinarian.
“I want to take advantage of every approach I can,” she said.
If others doubt Mr. Thomas’s approach, that is fine with her, just as it is with Texas-based oil-and-gas magnate Art Preston, another client.