Sectional Spotlight

Simon Rowlands has analysed the Oaks and the Derby at Epsom using sectional times.

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Anyone who has dealt with sectional times on a regular basis and in any detail – and, after over 20 years of operating in this area, I think I can claim that – knows that a couple of factors are necessary before those sectionals are fit for public consumption: validation and contextualisation.

Most electronically-based sectionals are subject to a degree of error, with the result that if the data says Horse A was ahead of Horse B at a given juncture but the visuals say it was the other way round it will be the former that needs adjusting.  

Contextualisation is less straightforward but involves using a meaningful amount of previous (validated) data to create benchmarks against which subsequent efforts may be gauged. Without that, to at least some degree, sectionals are just a bunch of numbers.

In particular, you should look to identify efficient performances – ones which resulted in good overall times compared to the protagonists’ apparent abilities – and the sectionals which gave rise to them.

Future races will involve different goings (and horses of different abilities, carrying different weights, etc), but it is a straightforward matter to adjust the benchmarks to allow for such factors.

Research in this area indicates repeatedly that horses must perform in a very similar way in proportion to their overall times in order to maximise their average speeds and minimise those final times.

Where Saturday’s Derby at Epsom is concerned, we have a large body of evidence of “how to run fast”, from decades of performances, good and bad, in the race itself and in other 12f races at the track.

From recent years, we can use the efforts of Derby winners like Masar, Wings of Eagles, Golden Horn and Australia (but not Harzand and Ruler of The World, who contested falsely-run races) to create those benchmarks and then to adjust them so that they map to the overall time of this year’s contest, won by ANTHONY VAN DYCK.

This year’s Derby was run on fast ground – two course records fell elsewhere on the card, though both at shorter distances – and you would expect an efficiently-paced runner to hit the various waypoints in times quicker than normal. But, in terms of the proportions of a horse’s overall time those benchmarks represent, it should be much the same.

Unfortunately, it is clear that the sectionals issued officially after the 2019 Derby had errors in them. The following is a summary of what may be established about the race from sophisticated video analysis instead.

Epsom Derby sectionals

Contrary to what has been said in some quarters, this year’s Derby was not slowly-run, or excessively strongly-run.

As can be seen, the leader was several lengths ahead of par early on, but the field was quite well strung out and the eventual winner, Anthony Van Dyck, ran mostly in the “Goldilocks Zone”, where the pace was neither too fast, nor too slow, but “about right”.

The leader was faster than par for most of the race, but Anthony Van Dyck, back in the pack, was never more than a few lengths from it. He made up a leeway of about two lengths early in the straight, but was almost bang on standard thereafter.  

It is also true that the second to fifth horses – who finished in a line half a length behind Anthony Van Dyck – ran fairly close to par overall. Among them, however, was Madhmoon, who stumbled 4f out then put in a very fast 10.74s sectional from 3f out to 2f out to dispute the lead. I have him rated equal to the winner.

There were minor excuses for some of the other principals, but, if you are looking for reasons why they might have run faster, sectionals are not a prime suspect.

It had been a similar story the day before in The Oaks, a race run on less-firm ground (and with 14 yards added to the race distance on account of rail movement) but in much the same style: the leader was several lengths ahead of par early on but the second half of the race was fairly efficient.

That remark applies to the pace up front, but not necessarily to individual horses within the race.

Sectional upgrading, which adjusts a horse’s overall time performance in the light of its sectionals, suggests the most efficient ride won The Oaks, not necessarily the best filly.

Epsom oaks sectionals

Due to the nature of the 12f track at Epsom – very stiff to begin with, around bends mid-race, then straight and downhill for the last 3.5f – the finishing speed par is around 111% (that is, efficient horses run about 11% quicker late on than for the race overall).

Frankie Dettori on ANAPURNA got that almost bang on. Ryan Moore on Pink Dogwood did not. 

Drilling down further shows that the runner-up completed from 3f out to 2f out in approximately 10.75s, which is about 0.75s (four and a half lengths) quicker than par given the known final time, and about 0.50s quicker than Anapurna managed at the same stage.

Such a large (and what proved to be premature) move probably made the difference between winning and losing: sectional upgrading suggests so. In proportion, it was an even bigger effort than Madhmoon’s at the same juncture the following day.

Horse error as well as possible jockey error appeared to be the issue where third-placed Fleeting was concerned. She lacked pace when it mattered, but her closing splits suggest there would have been an even better effort in her had she not been so far back turning in.

I am repeatedly reminded that “sectionals are not for everyone”, which is fair enough. But anyone imagining that pace and efficient energy usage matters little in horseracing, or any other athletic discipline, is deluding themselves.

And anyone who thinks that such factors are better judged visually than through timing has to explain away the countless misinterpretations of pace and times which perpetuate to this day.

The crucial difference is that we are now in a position to call out those misinterpretations after the event, if we wish to.

Sectional Spotlight
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