Sectional Spotlight

Sectional timing expert Simon Rowlands breaks down the Derby and Oaks at Epsom, contextualising the victories of Serpentine and Love via the clock.

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Well, well, well. What do you make of that?

The Epsom Classics on Saturday were both won by wide margins: The Investec Oaks by nine lengths and The Investec Derby by five and a half. But, while most people will be prepared to accept the result of the former – in which the favourite beat the third-favourite and the second-favourite – there was widespread disbelief that The Derby could fall to a 25/1 shot, from 50/1 and 66/1 outsiders.

The manner in which the two wins were achieved fed into those initial impressions, too. Love came from behind in The Oaks to forge away in the closing stages, but Serpentine made-all in The Derby, slipping his rivals mid-race, and never threatening to be caught.

However, that opening question should really be “HOW do you make sense of that?”, rather than “WHAT do you make of that”, at least to begin with.

Too often, especially in the modern era, there is a rush to form judgements and to pass comment, where greater consideration and contemplation is called for. Hot takes rule.

Where analysis of races are concerned – and not just the 2020 Oaks and Derby – the steps should be: first, to try to establish the facts; then, to try to establish the context attached to those facts; and, finally, to draw the conclusions that the first two steps seem to justify.

In establishing the facts, we can – indeed, we should – use times to gauge how quickly horses ran from start to finish and in sections along the way.

While the start to finish bit is easy enough in this instance – Love ran the 12f and 6 yards in 2m 34.06s while Serpentine managed 2m 34.43s, a difference of just over two lengths – the sectional measures can be a bit of a problem.

British racing still does not produce sectional times at all courses. Figures appeared for the Epsom Classics, but only several hours after the event and without having been flagged up in advance. What’s more, there are some errors in the data when compared with video footage, as was the case last year.

I will stick with the figures I myself produced at the time, including for individual horses crossing paths, which in any case allows for detailed comparison with past races.

This is what they say, with the leaders highlighted in red.

Those first three splits are taken at the first path, the path just before the top of the hill and after a bit more than half a mile, and at the end of the famous crossing at the entrance to the straight. The final split is 2f from the finish, with a reminder that the BHA surveyed all furlong markers in 2017 and stated that they are now correctly positioned.

In addition, there are par times below for how best to achieve an overall time of 2m 34.0s, from the sectionals that have given rise to good times at the course and distance over many years.

The leaders in The Oaks and The Derby set similar paces in the early stages, which were five or six lengths ahead of par given the overall times that were eventually run. The crucial difference is that the winner of The Oaks, Love, was settled well off this pace while the winner of The Derby, Serpentine, was the one setting it.

Serpentine went further ahead of par by the entrance to the home straight – 1.35s or over 8 lengths – while Love was closing on the leader and on par (about 5 lengths behind it) by that point. Serpentine was still ahead of par 2f out, if less so, and over 8 lengths ahead of Love on a one-to-one comparison.

Indeed, he remained ahead of par (fractionally) and ahead of Love until the final furlong, when he finally began to plod and Love swept past, as it were. By then, Serpentine was home and hosed in The Derby in any case.

Love’s time from the end of the crossing was 39.06s for a finishing speed (speed at finish as % of average race speed) of 113.0%, while Serpentine’s was 41.53s for 106.5%. Par is 111.0%, due to the stiff early/easy late nature of the 12f course at Epsom.

Neither horse ran super-efficiently, but Serpentine’s manner of running should have impacted his overall time more than Love’s. What the facts emphatically prove is that Serpentine went nothing like a steady pace up front in the Derby, despite some reports to the contrary.

We can add a bit of further context, just in case you are still sceptical, by comparing those splits with a selection of Derby winners of yesteryear. I have extracted those for some who ran similar overall times to Serpentine, as well as those for the winner in 1985, Slip Anchor, who prevailed in a similar fashion to Serpentine.

Serpentine was ahead of those four most recent winners until the final quarter of a mile and ahead of Slip Anchor (who was racing on easier ground), other than briefly and fractionally, after the first half-mile.

While Serpentine ran fast and kept going until the race was as good as over, the same cannot be said of all of his rivals.

The placed horses ran quite close to par (finishing speeds of around 110%) but the next four home did not. Fastest of all was seventh-placed Russian Emperor (38.95s, 114.7% FS), followed by English King (39.03s, 114.2%), Mogul (39.25s, 113.6%) and Kameko (39.57s, 112.6%).

Sectional analysis suggests that each of the quartet should have finished ahead of the third, and probably the runner-up, too, in the order of: English King, then Russian Emperor, then Kameko, then Mogul, at least in theory.

You would back them all to finish a fair bit closer to Serpentine, but not necessarily to beat him, or not for me anyway. The 2020 Derby may have been an unsatisfactory race – that is perhaps an understatement! – but the winner is very likely pretty good.

After you factor in those sectionals, he deserves a rating similar to Love’s, but it must be remembered that Love would get a sex allowance were they to meet.

There is nothing not to like about Love, who has now won two Classics most authoritatively and by delivering power-packed finishes that were far too much for her rivals.

She was a good 1000 Guineas winner, and is now a very good Oaks winner, for all that her opposition in both races was not the strongest.

Her overall time was a record for the race at Epsom, though it should be remembered that some past runnings (including Enable’s previous best of 2m 34.13s) involved rail movements that will have added in the region of 0.80s.  

Uncomplicated and versatile, Love has both speed and stamina, but perhaps a bit more of the latter than the former. A strongly run race showed her in a good light here and exposed the chinks in the armour of her main rivals.

Love was gloriously good, and emphatic with it. Serpentine was head-scratching and unexpected, but almost certainly good as well.

Some of the jockeys on the latter’s rivals would like another go, no doubt. But it should not be underestimated just how quickly Serpentine went and how surprisingly well he stuck to his task.

It would have taken plenty to have beaten Serpentine on the day. It might have taken nothing less than Love, in fact.

Sectional Spotlight
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