Commentary

More than a feeling

Updated: April 24, 2012, 4:19 PM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

Kerry ThomasSteve Barger PhotoBusiness has picked up for Thomas and his company.

Leading up to every Kentucky Derby, there is an overwhelming amount of information bandied about concerning each horse. Pedigrees of both the horse and his connections will be examined, as well as past performances and speed figures.

Although the accuracy of this formula is far from exact, it has nonetheless become fairly standard and accepted when it comes time to select a Derby horse. So last year, when I saw Animal Kingdom picked in print as the likely Kentucky Derby winner by a man named Kerry Thomas, I have to admit I raised an eyebrow.

To say it was an unusual choice is an understatement. The lightly raced chestnut colt had never run on dirt, and his pedigree did not exactly inspire confidence that he would relish the surface.

But what fascinated me more was the logic behind picking the horse. This was not a random longshot pick or a whimsical one. And trust me, I have made good money off of both scenarios.

This was a legitimate, this horse is going to win because he is the best, pick. Furthermore, it was an accurate one. Animal Kingdom, at 20-1, did in fact wear the roses when it was all said and done.

Perhaps the most intriguing part is that Thomas is not a turf writer or a serious handicapper. Instead, he specializes in equine athletic psychology, with an emphasis on emotional conformation profiling.

There are a lot more layers to the onion than just the physical part. The mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete.

-- Kerry Thomas, Thomas Herding Technique
In other words, he is looking for horses with trainable minds because those quirks and personality traits we talk about are more than just fun anecdotes.

"There are a lot more layers to the onion than just the physical part," explained Thomas. "The mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete. We need to add that into the equation. I am not saying the physical part is not important. Obviously, it is majorly important. However, the efficiency at which that body operates is governed by the animal's psychology."

I can feel a few eyebrows raising as you read this. But maybe the fact he also picked Drosselmeyer to win the Breeders' Cup Classic last year (at odds of 14-1 no less) will be enough to pique your curiosity.

More than 20 years ago, Thomas began independent research to learn about the social structures of wild horse herds in Wyoming and Montana. It was during that time that he developed "emotional conformation profiling," because he feels it is not the physical but the mental that governs herd dynamics.

For many years he honed this technique and applied it to the sport horse and therapeutic horse worlds. Then, like many, Thomas was drawn to the sport of horse racing in 2006 as the result of Barbaro. Although the ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner did not end up with a happy ending, Thomas had fallen not only for the horse but the sport as well.

"I absolutely love racing," he said. "It is natural for the horse. There is nothing more beautiful -- whether it is in the wild or on a racetrack -- than watching healthy, mentally sound horses moving together and battling out for space."

So, last year, when Thomas was approached by the website kentuckyconfidential.com to profile all of the horses entered in the Kentucky Derby, he was happy to accept the opportunity. Using videos of past performances, he analyzed each competitor and weighed in on their chances.

It became clear that Thomas felt only two horses had a legitimate chance at winning, Dialed In (who was sent off as the favorite) and Animal Kingdom. Dialed In made sense to many; Animal Kingdom did not.

"I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy," Thomas said. "What I liked about Animal Kingdom was his ability to manage and interpret multiple stimulus in his environment without losing pace and without losing focus.

"To me, he was a classic stair climber: he could target and release, and then move on to the next target. As he does that, he is building up momentum and getting stronger and stronger. That is what I am looking for when I am looking for big-time, classic distance horses.

"A lot of horses get into one battle, and they get stuck there. Nothing else matters. They don't care about moving on because they don't need to, that is their fight. The finish line is just a human line. A horse can control space from any direction; it is up to us to teach them to do it forward because that makes us happy."

This year Thomas will once again be profiling the Kentucky Derby field for the same website, and while he couldn't share specifics with me, he did express enthusiasm for the upcoming contest.

"Last year, I figured it would break into two or three different horse herds, but I am seeing something completely different this year," he said. "I am seeing a lot more horses that have profiles that are indicative of a bunch of little battles happening. This is going to be one helluva a race."

Although some might want to dismiss Thomas' profiling as an elaborate parlor trick, owners have been taking note. Because not only can he profile their horse, he can profile the competition.

"I spend a lot of time signing nondisclosure agreements," he said. "Basically I can provide a scouting report. It shouldn't seem so unusual when you think about it. When you go to an MLB game, there is a scouting report on every player. The pitcher knows who is coming to hit and where their sweet spots are. Because a race has so much chaos, there is no perfect world and there is no 100% mathematical solution to anything. However you increase your chances of pushing the right buttons when you have that information in your hip pocket."

You work so hard for so long, and it is great to see momentum building, all the hard work paying off, and so many opportunities coming to the table.

-- Kerry Thomas, Thomas Herding Technique
Thomas and those at his company, Thomas Herding Technique, do far more than just video profile horses. In addition to full, in-person profiles, they are currently creating a stallion profile database for breeders, can help shorter short lists at sales, and much more.

This year has been a kind one to those at THT and there are a lot of irons in the fire, both here and abroad.

They have launched the racing and breeding operation Misfit Racing to put into practice Thomas' philosophy of giving each individual horse his or her own program. The goal is to have three or four foundation broodmares, and the first has been acquired. The mare already has her retirement home sorted for when her days of being a broodmare are over because Thomas is a big proponent of responsible breeding and ownership.

Additionally, Thomas' first book, Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes, hits the shelves April 25, and there are many other aspects of his company that are receiving international attention. Although his business is growing, Thomas welcomes any inquiries he receives about what his company does.

"The past year has been exciting and also scary," said Thomas. "You work so hard for so long, and it is great to see momentum building, all the hard work paying off, and so many opportunities coming to the table."

While Thomas approaches horse racing from a vastly different point of view than most, it is certainly a fascinating one … and one you might want to keep in mind when searching for your Derby horse.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.