Published 4th February
Regular readers of attheraces.com Sectional Spotlights will be aware of the benefits of considering sectional times, whether they are provided electronically – as Total Performance Data figures are at some flat tracks – or have to be sourced yourself.
Overall times may be heavily influenced by variations in pace, so that good horses do not always run good times. But a good horse should at the least run a good sectional, or sectionals, along the way. The clock does not lie, even though it sometimes seems to be speaking in a foreign language!
Sectional times reveal not just ability that might remain obscured otherwise, they help to identify the trustworthiness of form and whether or not a race was likely to have suited horses close to or away from the early pace.
Contrary to what some imagine, this is every bit as relevant over jumps as it is on the flat, though analysis of overall times – with which sectionals should always be compared – was an uphill struggle in the latter code until recently due to imprecision about overall race distances.
A fast pace will put the premium on finishing stamina and a slow pace will put the premium on finishing speed – with positioning compared to that headline pace a crucial factor – whether the race is a six-furlong sprint or a three-mile chase.
Indeed, it is easier in some respects to take accurate sectionals over jumps, and therefore to draw robust inferences from the data, due to the fact that crossing an obstacle is an easily-identified event.
Sectional analysis is increasingly popular on the flat but still relatively ignored over jumps. That provides an opportunity, especially where the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival is concerned. Nowhere is “groupthink” more obvious than at jumps racing’s marquee occasion. Having a slightly different take on things may reap benefits.
The first of these sectional previews will look at the Sun Racing-sponsored Stayers’ Hurdle, highlight of the Thursday card along with the Ryanair Chase.
There is a good reason why the Stayers’ Hurdle is up first, and that is because the vast majority of principals in recent editions of the race (formerly known as the World Hurdle) had their final preparation for the big event by the end of the weekend just gone.
Indeed, all of the last 10 winners had done so – with Penhill last year not seen since the previous April – as well as 82% of the first-four finishers in the last decade.
The ante-post betting is dominated by Paisley Park plus several contenders who look far from sure to participate. The Stayers’ Hurdle could easily be a shallow contest come the day.
One race above all others crops up repeatedly in the past performances of winners and horses who have run well, and that is the Cleeve Hurdle at the same course in January. Thistlecrack won it, Big Buck’s won it twice, and several other close-up finishers in the Stayers’ Hurdle itself ran with credit in it.
This year’s edition saw the aforementioned Paisley Park come home 12 lengths clear of West Approach, with another two lengths back to Black Op, in a race run at a strong pace and in a good overall time (163 timefigure, edged up from my initial assessment).
What is not to like? Well, as the accompanying table shows, Paisley Park ran efficiently, whereas his rivals did not, which resulted in his superiority being exaggerated somewhat.
Superior he was, for sure, but he looked an unlikely winner for some way, under pressure and matched at over 8/1 before his stamina booted in. Paisley Park was still only ninth at the second-last – at which Black Op led – but forged clear approaching the last as others stopped.
As it is, he would have won by a few lengths less had the race been run at the advertised distance and not over 132 yards more.
Paisley Park could be vulnerable in a Stayers’ Hurdle taking place on anything other than soft ground and at a strong pace. Last year’s was, unexpectedly, run at a crawl and would likely have been no good for him.
In that same Cleeve Hurdle, both West Approach (a difficult horse to win with) and BLACK OP travelled significantly better than Paisley Park until between the last two, and it is Black Op who interests me most now.
A very smart novice hurdler last season, when he found only Samcro too good at the Festival then beat Lostintranslation at Aintree, Black Op did not take to fences when third in two novices but showed for the vast majority of the Cleeve that all of his ability is still there.
Stamina will be a concern, but he is likely to be ridden more patiently in March, and, in contrast to the Cleeve, the Stayers’ has been run at the advertised distance in recent years. Fancy prices have gone, but it is easy to see Black Op as one of the few realistic dangers to Paisley Park come the day.
Paisley Park’s claims are not based solely on that ultimately impressive Cleeve win, of course. He is unbeaten in four this term, including another significant Stayers’ trial – the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot – the time before, albeit by just two lengths from West Approach and in a less-impressive 152 timefigure.
Paisley Park touched 13/1 in running that day and 129/1 at Haydock the time before. It ain’t over until it’s over with this gelding.
Apple’s Jade, Melon, Samcro, and possibly Faugheen, are doubtful runners in the Stayers’, Penhill has not been seen since getting run over by the last-named at Punchestown, Sam Spinner and Unowhatimeanharry are not as good as they once were. You soon start scraping the bottom of a barrel.
In that context, Black Op makes a fair amount of each-way appeal as an unexposed hurdler who probably has an even bigger performance in him. We just need to keep our fingers crossed that the big race does not turn into a thorough slog, as that might not suit him but would suit the favourite.
Verdict: BLACK OP each-way