Records and Performances

July 6, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

(A personal rant. If you are not interested in language or horse racing, read no further.)

One of these things is not like the others.
  1. “He’s a guy with a track record that's beyond reproach.” (Nationals GM Mike Rizzo speaking about Davey Johnson as manager. USA Today, June 27)
  2. The decision to publish was made easier by Ritter’s proven track record as a songwriter. (Steven King reviewing a book by Josh Ritter, NYT July 3)
  3. Members of the House don't have a very good track record in primary campaigns. (Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight NYT blog on Michelle Bachman, June 23, a post called “Handicapping the Republican Field..”)
  4. That’s what the OLC is good at, and what it has a long track record of doing on war powers. (Ruth Marcus on the Office of Legal Counsel, WaPo, June 22)
  5. He walked a 20-kilometer race in Finland in 1:23:49.39 . . . just nine seconds off the U.S. men's 20K track record, which, as it happens, is held by his coach. (An article on racewalking, USA Today, June 24)
  6. That No. 1 finish extends Pixar’s perfect box-office track record - all 12 of its feature films have opened in first place. (NYT article on “Cars 2,” June 27)
  7. G.M.’s track record for making cars people want has not exactly been inspiring. (Joe Nocera, NYT, June 26)
One of these things uses “track record” in its original and logical sense. Can you guess which one is not like the others by the time I finish this post?

In the previous post about history, I said that horseplayers use the past performance charts to handicap the horses – i.e., to assign each horse a probability of winning – and decide which horse to bet on. “Past performances” are the details of each horse’s performance in previous races. It’s a lot of information.

Here’s an excerpt of the past performances for the horses in the first three post positions in this year’s Belmont Stakes. (A tutorial on how to read past performances is here.)

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view. Or go here and click on this same image for the full thing at readable size.)

After the race, horseplayers become historians. They go back to the same past performance charts to find the information that explain why the winner won (and why their horse finished out of the money).

The term “track record” also comes from horse racing. It indicates the fastest time for a given distance at a given track. The track record allows you to compare the performances of horses that have been running at different tracks.

For some reason, beginning in the late 1960s, “track record” spread far beyond the track.

The results were disastrous. Now, just about everybody except horseplayers – i.e., just about everybody – says “track record” when they mean “past performances.”

In the examples above, only #5 uses “track record” as it should be used (pardon my prescriptivism). Nate Silver (#3) even calls his blog post “Handicapping the Republican Field.” For Godssakes Nate, if you’re going call what you do “handicapping,” use the language of handicapping correctly.

It’s possible that this use of “track record” differs slightly from “past performances” and that the speaker is referring to someone’s record in some particular bailiwick, some metaphoric “track.” But in nearly every case, there is no other “track” that it could possibly be confused with. The added word “track” is totally unnecessary. Go back and read the sentences above, mentally removing the “track.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

A simple “record” instead of “track record” retains all the meaning. And to my ear, once you remove the distraction of “track,” the sentences are clearer.

Why do people need to misuse the beautiful and precise language of horseplayers? Maybe they think that using a racing term gives their persona a dash of risk and romance, the roguish and the raffish. But inevitably, they get it wrong.


The Last Leaf Gardener said...

Unrelated to your post today. But have you heard of the book, "The Faculty Lounges & Other Reasons You Won't Get The College Education You Paid For" by Naomi Shaefer Riley? On NPR today she argues that " the tenure that comes with a university position—is at the heart of so many problems with higher education today." Here's the link:

PCM said...

That was so nice of you to wait while I went back to check! Your patience is admirable.

I'll pass this on to my wife, who was very recently shocked about how little I knew about horse names. And is a bit of a language maven.

Unrelated, a few birthday's back, I went to the track for the first and only time of my life. All my horses lost. Nine races! What are the odds of that?

I'm still a bit bitter that "Personable Pete" was scratched in the 5th. How could he not have won on my special day?

PCM said...

And not knowing anything about horses or racing... I always thought "track record" meant won/loss like in baseball. A record for the horse... not for the track.

Now I know.