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Bad enough to qualify

Sun 21 Aug 2022 by mskala Tags used: ,

Today is the Queen's Plate, a horse race here in Toronto that is considered a big enough deal to be reported in the general news media, and it had me thinking about a peculiarity of horse racing: the qualifications to enter a race are usually backward compared to human sports. Whereas human athletes need to be good enough to qualify for an event, horses need to be not too good.

Human athletic events typically require a minimum standard to be allowed to enter. There may be "qualifying rounds" or similar to pre-select the best competitors for the chance to compete in the final event. An individual athlete will train to become good enough. The athlete's ambition is to advance to higher and higher levels of competition.

There are occasional exceptions, where someone is excluded from a competition because of being too good. What that happens, or at least when we care about it happening, it's usually in a case where there's a lot of money and skill on both sides of an important eligibility boundary - for instance, between the college and major leagues of American football, or for the very few Olympic sports (ice hockey and association football, maybe no others) where there are highly profitable professional leagues. Then there could be an issue of a "professional" player spuriously entering an event that is supposed to be for "amateurs" but still actually involves a lot of money and glory.

It is possible that someone could argue sex segregation in human sports is also an exception, where there could be a problem of someone entering in a lower-ability event when they ought to be in a higher-ability event, but that seems like it may be a different issue and I'm not eager to go into it. Even if you want to call sex segregation an exception to the general case of human events having minimum rather than maximum ability standards, it remains that minimum standards are really common.

Horse races are different. Each horse race has what are called "conditions," specifying which horses are allowed to participate, and these are typically maximum standards. The point is to keep out horses who are too good. For instance, it's a common condition that a race will be only for horses who have never won an official race before; or another race might be for horses who may have won one race but have not won two or more. Another common condition is that the horses entered in the race must be offered for sale at a specific fixed price, so an owner of a horse worth more than that will be deterred from entering by the likelihood of being forced to sell their valuable horse cheaply. There can also be handicap-related conditions: if the horse is better than such-and-such a standard, then okay, maybe they're still allowed in the race, but they'll be required to carry extra weight which would be expected to slow them down. Race conditions are potentially very complicated, but the common thread is that they are designed to keep out or penalize horses who are too good.

If a lower-level race gets too many entries, the organizers of the race do not ordinarily pick and choose among horses who have met the condition; they just conduct a random draw to see who gets in, and possibly offer another race with the same condition soon afterward to provide a venue for the others.

It is only at the highest levels of racing that a horse might be turned away for being not good enough, and even then it's usually done in an indirect way. The highest levels of racing are the so-called "stake" races, like today's Queen's Plate, where the main condition is that the owner of each horse must pay a large entry fee. The entry fees help fund the prize money eventually given to the winners. That deters entry of horses who aren't good enough to compete seriously at the race's expected level, because the owners will want to have a reasonable chance of winning back their money. And if (perhaps for the glory of participating in a big race) an owner is willing to pay the fee for a horse who really isn't up to the standard of the competition, it would normally be allowed; such a case just improves the prospect of winning for the others in the race.

So the equine situation is the opposite of the human situation: horses at most levels must prove themselves bad enough to enter, with some exceptions near the top of the scale, whereas humans must prove themselves good enough, again with some exceptions near the top of the scale. Why the difference?

I think the reason for the difference is that, across the entire population, most human athletes are amateurs. It costs players money (and other resources, such as their leisure time) to participate. Those costs are paid either by the players themselves or by sponsors (parents, the government, etc.). The idea of competing in athletic competitions as a job, from which one might earn a living, exists only at the highest levels of competition.

Even at the level of sports competition where individual humans can make a living, often the larger enterprise is unprofitable and exists only because of sponsorship from even higher levels. For instance, in baseball and hockey there are professional minor-league teams where the players are paid a living wage, but the teams are not expected to fund themselves through ticket sales. Instead, they are "farm teams" associated with major-league teams that really do make a profit, which depend on having farm teams for scouting and training of future major-league players. A human player who is not good enough to be called to the major league can make an entire career of playing for a farm team, but only because their salary is paid for out of the profits earned by the enterprise at the next level up.

The point is that in human sports all the money is at the top of the system - and almost all the non-money rewards. Then there is a strong incentive for humans to move up. At every level past the bottom, there is an abundance of human players wishing to move up into that level and it's to be expected that the requirements for doing so will be structured to keep out those who are not good enough.

But there are no amateur racehorses! The first law of racing is that it's all about the money. The horses are professionals expected to earn a living in every race - either by winning prize money directly or by demonstrating their suitability for commercial breeding, which is also accomplished by winning races. Of course every horse cannot win every race, but in order for the system to work, horse owners must be able to have a statistical expectation that a horse's earnings, averaged over the horse's career, will be more than the cost of buying, feeding, and maintaining the horse and entering it in races. Maybe a very few wealthy humans - like the Queen - can afford to keep Thoroughbred horses as pets and then actually race them, just for fun; everybody else is in the game for profit. And that expectation of profit needs to be true on average for almost every racehorse, including the large majority who will never be big stars.

The people who organize races are also doing so for money; they need to attract owners to enter horses in the races; that includes owners of horses who are not stars; and so they need to offer the proposition that "Here is a race your horse can realistically win." That's what creates the "must not be too good" entry criteria: they need to be able to offer every horse who is allowed to enter, a realistic chance of winning. Despite the somewhat larger amounts of prize money offered in tougher races, a large prize is no good if you don't win it, and horse owners left to their own devices would prioritize the chance of winning at all. They would prefer to enter their non-star horses in the lowest levels of competition available, and the rules push them upward.

The much greater skew in rewards toward the higher (and, especially, the very top) levels of human competition, pushes human athletes into greater risk-seeking behaviour than what we see with horses. The humans want to move upward. Then requirements structured as "must be at least this good" are needed to counteract that tendency. Most humans actually do stay in low levels for their entire careers, but that is either because their participation was only ever a small part-time avocational interest anyway, or because their attempts to advance through the system failed.

It's not exactly the same scarcity/abundance distinction I've written about before, but it feels like some kind of scarcity and abundance is in play here: the system in either case has more participants than it needs at some levels, not enough at others, and needs to have ways of pushing participants into different levels from what they would otherwise seek. I'm interested in ways to connect these issues.

I'm also interested in the what-if question: what if there were circumstances under which human career incentives were more like those of racehorses? What would an institution look like in which people routinely didn't want to be promoted to career levels with greater salary and power, and "not being overqualified" was the main criterion for being allowed to avoid a promotion? What circumstances could lead an institution and its workers to exist in that state?


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