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Stud or Dud? The High Stakes World of Racehorse Ownership

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Watching the post parade at this weekend's Kentucky Derby will surely fill some of our heads with dreams of horse ownership. How did the julep-sipping folks acquire their prized horses? How much is buying a racehorse going to set you back? Are they sound investments?

These are all tricky questions, but let's take a look at a few stories of horse sales that turned out to be winning lottery tickets"¦and a few that were more dud than stud.

Mr. Prospector Becomes a Daddy Again and Again

In 1971, Mr. Prospector was a yearling that fetched $200,000 at auction. When he took to the track, he was good but not great; he won seven of 14 starts but only brought home $112,170 during his career. Still, in 1980 he sold for $20 million.

What happened? It turns out "Mr. P." was a stud in every sense of the word. While his racing career might not have been the most distinguished, it's tough to argue with his results as a stud. He sired a winner of each of the Triple Crown races, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren have been similarly speedy. His sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons have combined to win over 30 Triple Crown races and pull in around $100 million in earnings. Mr. P.'s Derby-winning son Fusaichi Pegasus fetched $60 million in 2000, and 18 years earlier, another son—Belmont winner Conquistador Cielo—sold for $36.4 million.

John Henry Drives Steel, Wins Cash

When John Henry, a yearling foaled in 1975, came up for bids at the Keeneland January Mixed Sale, he didn't generate much buzz. He had fairly mundane bloodlines, he wasn't particularly big, and he had a nasty temper—he got his name from a tendency of smashing steel feed buckets. John Calloway bought the unheralded gelding for a modest $1,100 investment and hoped he could make a little cash back on the horse.

How did it work out? By the time John Henry retired from racing, he was the top-earning gelding in history with over $6.5 million in career earnings. He won 25 graded stakes races and was racehorse of the decade for the 1980s. Not a shabby return on a $1,100 investment.

The Green Monkey Makes a Monkey Out of Bidders

Unless you're a huge fan of the band America, you might not envision shelling out eight figures for a horse with no name. That's exactly what happened in a January 2006 auction at Calder Race Course, though.

When the auctioneers brought a colt who was only known as "number 153" to the auction block, a fierce bidding war broke out. Buyers weren't afraid to open their wallets for a colt that was described as "perfect," and when the hammer dropped the horse went for a record $16 million. The winning bidders quickly christened the colt The Green Monkey, and excitement to see how the horse would do in races began to build. After all, the colt had run an eighth of a mile in a blazing 9.8 seconds in pre-auction workouts, so anything was possible once he started racing.

The buyers thought they were getting a Triple Crown threat. Instead they got the thoroughbred version of Ryan Leaf. The Green Monkey could never translate his workout speed into actual races, and in his career, he only managed one third-place finish in a measly three starts. In 2008, his owners retired him from racing to stand at stud. If his progeny enjoy the success that eluded the Green Monkey, he might make some of his substantial purchase price back. It will be tough, though; right now he only pulls in $5,000 as a stud fee.

"¦But He's in Good Company

The Green Monkey shouldn't feel too bad. The horses he took the "most expensive colt" record from didn't fare much better. Seattle Dancer set the yearling price record in 1985 when he went for a cool $13.1 million before going on to win $150,000 in his five career starts. Snaafi Dancer's sale in 1983 was the worst investment this side of stock; the first yearling to break the $10 million price mark never raced—and was infertile.

Cigar Comes Up Empty

Even casual sports fans may remember Cigar, the bay stallion who racked up an incredible 16 straight wins from 1994 to 1996. If Cigar had picked up just $187 more during his career, he would have become the first horse ever to break $10 million in race earnings. When the former Breeders' Cup Classic Champ came up for sale in 1998, there were more than a few breeders who wanted to get their hands on him.

Cigar sold for $25 million and promptly went out to stud to recoup some of that cash. That's when breeders discovered a problem: the horse that some analysts called "the second-best racehorse ever" was infertile. Cigar's new owners got a record $25 million payout on an insurance policy that covered infertility, and the champion stallion is spending the autumn of his years at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.