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What a 1930s horse racing guide by a conservative philosopher could teach sports scientists today

­Michael Oakeshott A Guide to the Classics: or How to Pick the Derby Winner displays a sense of judgement just as relevant today.

In 1920, an anonymous article appeared in the New Statesman under the headline “The intellectual side of horse racing”. The headline borders on euphemism, because the real subject is gambling. The serious gambler, the piece argued, relied on a sophisticated set of intellectual tools: “. . . a position somewhere between the extremes of Calvinism and Epicureanism. He worships neither certainty nor chance. He reckons up probabilities.” The ideal tipster, the author continued, “would at once be a great historian, a great antiquary, a great zoologist, a great mathematician, and a man of profound common-sense”.

One of its readers qualified under at least two of those criteria, for the article (by the Irish intellectual Robert Lynd) probably inspired the conservative philosopher ­Michael Oakeshott to explore the theme at book length. In 1936, Oakeshott co-wrote A Guide to the Classics: or How to Pick the Derby Winner. His book, like the New Statesman article, was wry and amused. The mischief extended to the title, which made it possible for schoolchildren “to learn something really worth knowing while keeping out of trouble by appearing to study the civilisation of antiquity”.

Oakeshott, who had published the den­sely argued Experience and its Modes in 1933, clearly enjoyed the change of key – like a composer gleefully writing a jaunty comic opera after years immersed in a serious work. But the light, irreverent tone can be misleading. A Guide to the Classics, which Oakeshott co-authored with a fellow Cambridge don, Guy Griffith, still has much to teach anyone trying to understand the art of picking winners in sport today.

Oakeshott admired practical thinking, so let’s begin there: if a gambler had used the Oakeshott-Griffith method to bet on every Derby since 1936, would he show a profit or a loss? A loss, I suspect. Some assumptions in the book have dated. The Derby, the ultimate achievement in the 1930s, is now rivalled by races later in the season, such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Second, the rearing of thoroughbreds has become more complicated. The book’s strictest axiom is about breeding, holding that a horse can win the Derby only if it has been sired by a horse that “has also won the Derby or the St Leger or been placed in the Derby”. Yet the sire of the greatest recent Derby winner, Sea the Stars, won neither.

Although the specifics have dated, the ­intellectual disposition is more relevant than ever, especially as sport is experiencing a revolution driven by data analytics. All decision-making in sport (not just gambling, but also recruitment and selection by coaches) hinges on probability. Oakeshott’s second chapter – to what extent does past form determine future performance? – now preoccupies sport’s cleverest thinkers and mathematicians.

Oakeshott rejects the notion of a perfect model, arguing that the form book is always incomplete and knowledge is always imperfect. There is a limit, he wrote in a later piece, “beyond which there are no precise rules for picking the winner, and . . . some intelligence (not supplied by the rules themselves) [is] necessary”. The shrewd judge of sport cannot just plug data into a model; he must also have an imagination – “the imagination that can help to reconstruct something that has really happened, from evidence that is not complete”. A mind trained to understand history, Oakeshott is saying, is more useful in picking winners than a whizzy maths model.

What is this quality that underpins a historian’s disposition? The answer is judgement. Oakeshott had just explored the theme in Experience and its Modes: “It is impossible to exclude criticism from history, and where there is criticism there is judgement. Before a ‘recorded’ event becomes an ‘historical’ event, a judgement must have been interposed.”

It is a timely message, not only for history but also for sport, which has often forgotten the primacy of judgement. In recent years, especially in the scientific afterglow of Moneyball, it seemed that numbers alone held all the answers. And I remain quite certain that data analytics will continue to provide insights into how matches are won and which players are more likely to succeed.

The more we know about data in sport, the more the Oakeshott position – confidence in good judgement rather than scientific “proof” – gains strength. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, is a leading exponent of data analytics. Yet he is in the vanguard of a
new, subtler understanding of the relationship between data and judgement. The quality of the mind interpreting the theory is as important as the theory, Morey argues. “You have to figure out what the model is good and bad at, and what humans are good and bad at.” No model can deliver results without a wise, shaping intellect: all theories need to be marshalled by judgement.

A Guide to the Classics is republished on 3 June, with two excellent additions – a new foreword by Peter Oborne and a preface by Sean Magee – just as Oakeshott’s ideas are making a quiet resurgence in professional politics. The introduction to the Conservative Party’s election manifesto echoes some important paragraphs from his celebrated essay “On Being Conservative”.

That influence should extend to modern sport. Oakeshott’s ideas on racing provide a case for the value and usefulness of the humanities – inexact but wise, sceptical but informed by deep knowledge.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Niall Ferguson wrote that if failed banks had known more history and less maths, they wouldn’t have gone bust. In the same way, “sports science” has enjoyed an extended boom. To guide its new insights and temper its excesses, however, I’d now put a good wager on the value of “sports humanities”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning