How important is intuition in picking winners?

James Willoughby and I had a lengthy twitter exchange today on the subject of intuition.  I had suggested that Pour Moi might be an exceptional horse on the evidence of his performance in the Investec Derby. I was particularly impressed with the manner of his victory – last to first: a sustained run which looked to me to still be gathering speed as he past the post.

The fairly close grouping of the placed horses suggests the bare form might not be that great but, having read comments by various experts, including Richard Hughes, that Derby winners need to hold a prominent position turning in, and that the wider you come the tougher the camber is to handle, then putting it all together I believed this to be a top-notch performance.

James pointed out that Erhaab won the Derby having come from a long way back though I do not think that horse was quite so spectacular, visibly, at least. Anyway, I also cited intuition as one of my reasons for recommending Pour Moi as excellent Arc value at 6/1. James took issue with that on the basis that a convincing argument needs to be based on objectivity and facts.

But how do you objectivise intuition?  What is intuition? There are numerous definitions online – many mentioning sixth sense, spirituality etc, but I prefer this:

So a practical answer to the question ‘what is intuition?’ would be to say that it’s the ability to process information, not just information in the environment, but also information available internally from past experiences and knowledge.

From time to time, when driving, especially on motorways, I’ve found myself quelling an instinct to move lanes, accelerate or make other maneouvres to ‘run with the herd’; it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it almost always proves correct, resulting in smoother or safer progress.

Lord knows how many miles I’ve driven these past 35 years, but my intuitive driving decisions are, I believe, very likely to result from subconscious recall of past experiences. I think my brain is pulling together lots of information I didn’t know was there and conveying it by way of a ‘hold on, this just doesn’t quite feel right’ message.

I’ve been watching racing for much longer than I’ve been driving (was sneaking into betting shops from age 13) and I’ve no doubt at all that much of what I’ve seen, allied to a ‘retro-fit’ of the experience, has given me a strong intuition about the potential of some horses.  The key, of course, is for the intuition to kick in when facts are sparse and evidence hard to come by. I wish I could say it has always served me well – it hasn’t, but it has helped much more than hindered in finding value.

However, Mr Willoughby’s promptings sent me to the formbook where I found that a reasonable argument could be made that Pour Moi is some way better than his bare form suggests. On his debut he missed the break and met serious trouble two out from which he was unable to recover (he beat the winner next time out). In his only other defeat, on his seasonal debut this year, he failed to settle but was running on well at the end.  Hold up tactics were adopted next time in a perfect Derby rehearsal – last to first showing ‘exceptional acceleration’ (Racing Post).

My intuition tells me that there is quite a lot more to come from this horse. Also, he’s proven on ground from heavy to good to firm (heavy was Fabre’s description) and if there is any 6/1 still around for the Arc, I think it will prove very good value.

On a completely non-factual, unintuitive, just-for-the-hell-of-it front, I’d love to see young Barzalona high in his irons blowing kisses to the Longchamp crowd while still fourth with half a furlong to run and snatching the Arc by a nose.

You can follow James Willoughby on twitter here

2 thoughts on “How important is intuition in picking winners?

  1. Hi Joe,
    I followed your twitter discussion with James with interest. It seemed to me JW was saying that you need to be able to describe your intuition objectively (as a writer) in order to expect readers to be convinced by you. If you can’t bring objectivity then, you may be 100% correct, but it will remain intuitive only to you.
    I remember reading something similar in a racing context a few years ago (can’t remember where, may have been a Racing Update article). When intuition in racing was explained by the use of the concept of ‘thematic prompts’.
    What happens is that your long experience leads you to store information on themes that are linked and often causal. You get a prompt, you are not sure what triggers it exactly…and subconsciously you reach to your bank of themed information which in turn leads you to a conclusion.
    This would explain why something tells you to speed up slow down on the motorway having built up thousands of miles behind the wheel. There is something in the configuration of traffic or some other factor maybe noise, maybe air movement that prompts you to the stored themes and suggests action.
    To return to the point there was something in Pour Moi’s performance…leg cadence, head carriage, behaviour after the line etc. which prompted you to feel he was a better horse than maybe he would be rated.
    I wouldn’t wish to speak for James or yourself but I think what JW was suggesting is that even if you are right that intuition (prompted theme) would remain with you only, unless you elaborated on it with factual evidence. Which you have done above.
    Sorry to be so wooly about it but I unfortunately I cannot decribe my memories of the article more accuracy.

    1. Hi Mark,

      I think you’ve summed up well my exchange with JW. Whether it’s a matter of a difference of interpretation of what intuition is, or perhaps something I am just not grasping, I still don’t believe that it is possible to justify and add objective credibility to something intuitive. To me – no pun intended – it is counter-intuitive to try and justify intuition with facts.

      Sure, you can try and define intuition, as I have tried to, but I don’t think you can explain ‘intuition in action’. Even if I say the intuition was based on some of the factors you suggest -cadence, head-carriage etc -, that no longer makes it an intuitive observation because it becomes an analysis based on describable factors.

      I can say no more than the overall performance left me with a strong conviction that the horse might be capable of considerably better. It’s hardly sticking your neck out to say a Derby winner could improve a pound or two, but I think Pour Moi could find at least 7lbs improvement, likely quite a bit more than that.

      Then again, my intuition could be a mile out and he’ll never win again!


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