Sectional Spotlight

Simon Rowlands takes a look at Al Boum Photo’s third consecutive win in the Savills New Year's Day Chase at Tramore ahead of his tilt at a Cheltenham Gold Cup hat-trick.

  • Monday 04 January
  • Blog
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The victory of Al Boum Photo in the Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore acted like a Rorschach Test – those ambiguous ink blots beloved of psychologists – on those looking on. Where some saw a rabbit – a good win, perhaps – others saw a butterfly or a disappointment.

There is no definitive answer to precisely what Al Boum Photo achieved, or not yet, but we can employ certain analytical methods to tip the probabilities in our favour. In order to do that we need evidence that is accurate and can be relied upon. That is where we have a problem.

The race Al Boum Photo won was advertised, with beguiling precision, as being over “2 miles 5 furlongs and 100 yards”: it was not.

Or it could not have been if the novice chase on the same card was truly at “1 mile 7 furlongs and 100 yards”, as stated.

The two races started from the same point – you can check this if you like – with Al Boum Photo’s race taking in three and a bit circuits and the novice chase taking in two and the same bit circuits.

Using simple logic, a circuit of Tramore is implied to be the difference between the two overall distances, or precisely six furlongs. It is not.

There are several ways of proving this without going anywhere near Tramore racetrack itself, including by using Google Earth (a chase circuit is just under seven furlongs) and by figuring that if a circuit is six furlongs then the “bit” from the start to the winning line must be exactly three furlongs and 100 yards in order for those overall distances to be correct.

That being so, the winner of the novice chase ran the closing stages in an average 9.30 seconds/furlong and Al Boum Photo ran the same in an average 9.75 seconds/furlong, a speed that Frankel, Battaash, or any other horse alive or dead, could not manage, let alone at the end of a long-distance race on soft-to-heavy ground and with two fences being jumped. QED.

My best attempts to establish the precise distances of the two races come up with 2m 6f and 167 yards for Al Boum Photo’s race (an excess of 287 yards) and 1m 7f and 187 yards for the novice chase (an excess of 87 yards).

Anyone using the distances given officially, or standard times derived from them, will come up with nonsensical figures.

Indeed, that is what happened previously, perhaps most famously when Al Boum Photo won his first Savills Chase here in 2019, running exceptionally fast in reality (providing you did not believe the race-distance information), but being largely ignored by timing experts and punters alike for the Cheltenham Gold Cup he went on to win.

While, to some, this might seem like much ado about nothing, there is a more serious point here, which concerns the Irish horseracing authorities’ wilful disregard for accurate information. Distance anomalies have been pointed out repeatedly to them, and wrong times occasionally, too.

Those authorities showed an alarming lack of interest in “suspicious” rides – and there were many of them, especially in maidens and novices over jumps – during my tenure in charge of Timeform Ireland.

Why should the public, including the betting public which part-finances the sport, trust those authorities when it comes to matters of drug-testing or corruption when it cannot be bothered to act on easily resolved issues?

Irish horseracing punches above its weight on the world stage. It has many of the best trainers, jockeys and horsepeople, and a few of the best analysts and writers, in the game. What it does not have is a governing body that measures up to the same standards.

So, Al Boum Photo: rabbit or butterfly? Probably the former: that is, a good winner.

His time was fast, using the correct distances and universal standard times as a starting point, and was a massive 30.3s quicker than the winner of the admittedly modest handicap chase which concluded proceedings.

He also beat 156-rated Acapella Bourgeois (once again) by 19 lengths conceding that one 4 lb, though the difference was only about six lengths at the last.      

Al Boum Photo’s overall time was much slower this year – 6m 09.9s – than for the past two years (5m 44.7s then 5m 53.5s), but that is in large part down to much softer ground, as far as we can deduce that from the mess of information presented to us.

At least one of Tramore’s fences appears to have been moved slightly between 2019 and 2020, while the run to the first became several seconds longer this year than previously.

So, rather than comparing the 2021 version of Al Boum Photo with the 2019 and 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning versions of himself, as was my wish, I am left with comparing it one-on-one with the winner of that modest handicap chase, Whoyakodding.

In normal circumstances, you might expect Al Boum Photo to run a time about 17.0s faster than Whoyakodding (allowing for weights carried etc), but it was nearly double that. This is how that came about.

Of course, if the Irish horseracing authorities had delivered sectional timing a few years ago, as promised, there would be no need to have to compute splits for ourselves. Perhaps that is something else they will finally get round to, some day.

The Savills Chase was faster than the handicap chase from flag fall to finish and at every sectional along the way. Those finishing speed %s (speed in closing stages as % of average race speed) show that the former was strongly run and the latter run at a fair pace at best: par for this “distance” is around 105%.

On the timing evidence available, Al Boum Photo deserves credit for a very smart performance, or possibly even better. The likelihood is that he is as good as he was, for all that you would like to see him do it against more credible opposition and not just the clock.
There was a surprising hostility in some quarters to the fact that bookmakers trimmed the horse after this race for a third Cheltenham Gold Cup win in March.

At one level, betting is a highly Bayesian exercise: you have an opinion – your idea of the true odds – it is tested against reality, and you revise your initial opinion accordingly. Bayesian updating dictates that you should do so in a trade-off between the strength of your confidence in the initial assessment (your “prior”) and the apparent strength of the new information.  

Going into this year’s Savills Chase, a multitude of outcomes were possible, including that Al Boum Photo fell, or was beaten apparently on merit. That he won, clearly if in rather workmanlike fashion until the very end, was one of the more positive possible outcomes for him, and that should be reflected in any posterior assessment.

Had Al Boum Photo fallen, his pre-race 4/1 might have become 6/1. Had he been beaten apparently on merit that 4/1 might have become 12/1. It is only to be expected that his performance in reality led to that 4/1 becoming 7/2.

Where I do disagree with the bookies is that my “prior” would have been not 4/1 but 6/1, and I would probably have the gelding at something like 5/1 now.

He is not a bet ante-post for me, but it is clearly wrong to take no note of what he did on New Year’s Day either. It is just a shame that it requires so much effort to establish the facts in the first place.

Al Boum Photo
Al Boum Photo hit a hat-trick of Savills New Year's Day Chase wins at Tramore.

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