Sectional Spotlight

Simon Rowlands on why the numbers suggest Zanahiyr should be even shorter in the betting for the Triumph Hurdle following his remarkable performance at Fairyhouse on Sunday.

  • Tuesday 01 December
  • Blog
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I suspect that most of us would agree that Ballyadam looks a pretty good horse. A smart bumper winner who landed a maiden hurdle at Down Royal easily and the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday with rather more effort, he is ante-post favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.

So, if I were to tell you that one of the other two-mile winners at Fairyhouse ran 9.5s (approaching 50 lengths) quicker than him overall, completed from two out in an almost identical time, and was much quicker than the useful bumper winner – who did not have to jump any obstacles, of course – and the useful handicap hurdle winner later on, you might sit up and take notice. Good, because you should!

The horse in question is ZANAHIYR, and his numbers suggest not just that he should be favourite for the Triumph Hurdle – which he now is – but that he should be a short-priced favourite at that.

Oddly little of the post-weekend chat was about Zanahiyr’s remarkable performance. It did not even merit a mention in Racing Post’s “Monday Jury”. This is what they were missing.

 Each race was timed using video-editing software, commencing at the point at which the leader passed the starter.

The figures in the table are each winner’s times at the various obstacles (distance to finish in box brackets), with omitted hurdles identified with round brackets. The graph converts these differences into lengths, using five lengths per second for convenience.     

Things were reasonably close to begin with, but by mid-race Zanahiyr was between 20 and 50 lengths ahead of the other two-mile winners.

The gap was closed slightly between four out and two out, whereupon Zanahiyr took off again, leaving the well-regarded Saint Sam toiling in his wake in the race itself and passing the post between 22.5 and 47.5 lengths ahead of those other winners. Despite having done much more running earlier, Zanahiyr somehow managed to complete the short run-in fastest of the quartet.

Zanahiyr carried 151 lb, compared to Ballyadam’s 166 lb, Advanced Virgo’s 142 lb and Grand Paradis’s 165 lb, but that does not begin to account for the huge differential in times. As was explained in an earlier blog, one-off omissions of hurdles can be expected to make only a small difference to times, but the omission of all hurdles speeds up a bumper by more than 5.0s in theory.  

Even an assumption of a slight deterioration in the speed of the surface fails to make Zanahiyr’s time look anything other than spectacular: it was a dry day, after all.

Time comparisons are notoriously difficult in Ireland, which still resolutely refuses to follow the British lead in measurement and reporting of race distances, or in installing long-overdue official sectionals. But there is little room for doubt when four races take place at the same distance on the same card.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Perhaps it should be the bookmakers who now duck – for cover – where Zanahiyr and the Triumph Hurdle is concerned.

Zanahiyr impressed on the clock at Fairyhouse.

There is an old saying that if one person states it is raining and another states it is dry, the job of the journalist is not to report both opinions but to look outside and find out which is true.

Much of what passes for journalism in horseracing is the reporting of opinions in an uncritical manner. That is fine in some circumstances, such as when asking a jockey after a race “how did that feel?” or “do you think he is a good horse?”

You are not sure to get much of an insight, but it can be seen as part and parcel of the promotion and entertainment of the sport. There is always the “mute” button, or the next page, after all.

But it is not fine if the answer being sought is a matter of fact, not of opinion, and might be established through evidence which the person being questioned could not possibly be expected to know.

Into this category goes a question asked last week of a winning jockey immediately post-race: “was the pace strong?”

Perhaps it was intended to catch out the jockey in question. As it was, we got something akin to “it possibly was and it possibly wasn’t”, which rates highly on honesty but not on enlightenment for the viewer.

Some questions about pace are difficult to answer definitively, even after reflection, but a race in which the leaders were around 20 lengths slower by halfway than the lesser contest which preceded it at the same course and distance is not one of them. Those facts could have been established with minimal effort by anyone with the inclination to do so.

So, a request, which I suspect will fall on deaf ears. Could journalists and broadcasters consider asking a horse’s connections about factual matters – how strong a pace there was, or whether or not it is actually raining, for instance – only when those facts cannot realistically be established by other means?

If a question about pace is worth asking – and it often is – then it is worth answering properly, too.

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