A casual observer of Our Great Game might wonder whether there is any method to its madness. Forget that: even a committed enthusiast might do the same from time to time. I know I do!
One horse beats another on one day, then the tables are turned on the next. Or so it can seem, rather too often for comfort.
There is, of course, a method behind horseracing results, and it is one which becomes more apparent, but never entirely predictable, the more you understand about the game.
Horses improve and deteriorate, are more or less suited to circumstances, and encounter luck or misfortune along the way.
While horses and jockeys are subject to physical laws, as are athletes in any sport, the role of randomness should not be underestimated. It affects all sportspeople, and horseracing’s participants perhaps more than most.
That all said, we have become better as time goes by at measuring what can be measured and at accepting that some things cannot be.
In the former category are sectional times, whether they originate from a hi-tech source like Total Performance Data’s figures to be found from a growing number of courses in the Results Section on this site, or those arrived at by other means.
The following will compare and contrast the sectional times of the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot (figures available publicly, courtesy of Ascot Racecourse and their partners Longines) and this week’s Qatar Sussex Stakes at Goodwood (my own, from sophisticated video analysis). Along the way, I hope to illustrate a few of the principles and nuances involved.
First, though, the quickest of recaps of the fundamentals of the subject.
The efficiency with which a horse races will affect the time it takes to run from A to Z. If you think otherwise, in the face of all the physical and empirical evidence, then try running 100 metres evenly then walking the first half before sprinting the rest and see how it affects your times.
This efficiency/inefficiency can be measured precisely, through sectionals. The degree to which a horse varies from efficiency, or par, defines how much its overall time was compromised by this fact.
It is possible to upgrade performances in the light of such findings, and some have been doing that for most of this century, though this is an area of enquiry which is still in its relative infancy (not least because data has been too difficult to come by). Insights may be gained without needing to go that far.
Each horse’s speed in the closing stages of the race is compared to its speed for the race overall and expressed as a “finishing speed %”. A figure over 100 means a horse was finishing faster than its average race speed; one of under 100 means the opposite.
Sometimes, the sectional used is forced upon us by things like camera angles (for manually derived sectionals), but a good rule of thumb, derived from wider studies, is to use the final 2f for races up to and including 9f and final 3f for races at longer distances where there is a choice.
Those finishing speed %s are similar for the two races above, but need to be compared with what is par for the course and distance in question. This par may be derived from the historical sectionals which have led to fast overall times.
Ascot’s round mile rises steadily by a total of 21 metres according to Google Earth; Goodwood’s rises by 8 metres initially then drops slightly before a small rise near the finish. Both have significant bends mid-race: we should not expect their pars to be the same or even similar.
My par finishing speeds for the two races are 99.0% for the St James’s Palace Stakes and 102.7% for the Sussex. The principals were finishing much quicker than par in the former but only a little quicker than par in the latter.
The “upgrade” comes from the difference between actual finishing speed % and that par finishing speed %, and works exponentially, in line with the laws of physics (a 2% difference from par will have more than double the effect of a 1% difference from par).
What is apparent is just how falsely-run the St James’s Palace Stakes was. Circus Maximus finished quickly, but the four horses immediately behind him finished even quicker.
The Sussex finishing speeds and upgrades suggest that the Goodwood race was a pretty fair contest. There will have been a positional disadvantage in being off the pace, but it was minor, and I Can Fly, Happy Power and Lord Glitters made insufficient gains to have their time ratings boosted by more than the odd pound. Too Darn Hot can be considered superior to Circus Maximus on the day, if not by much.
If you had taken the Royal Ascot form at face value, you might well have ended up on the “wrong” horse at Goodwood. But if you factored in sectionals you are likely to have come to a different view, one which seemed to be borne out by events.
You do not have to use sectionals to come to such conclusions, but sectionals measure things accurately, banish uncertainty and enable the kinds of precise and objective calculations referred to above.
That is in the past now, of course. What of the future? What, in particular, of the horse who flew home into second at Royal Ascot with a super-swift 23.16s for that closing quarter of a mile against a pace bias?
We may not be “awaiting sectionals”, as the saying goes, with such regularity these days, thankfully. But we are “awaiting KING OF COMEDY”, who has not been seen since. His only British entry is in the Juddmonte International Stakes at York in three weeks’ time.