Sectional Spotlight

Simon examines whether there was a pace bias at Santa Anita during the 2019 Breeders’ Cup and looks at which distances the Vertem Futurity Trophy principals are likely to operate over next season.

  • Wednesday 06 November
  • Blog
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The Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita last weekend brought the curtain down on the 2019 flat season, bar a few late skirmishes at the likes of Doncaster, Tokyo and Sha Tin still to come. In many respects it was a fitting finale: good, but not spectacularly so, much like the season itself.

One aspect of the Breeders’ Cup that was up to scratch was the TV coverage, courtesy of NBC and augmented by comments from the Sky Sports Racing studio. It was slick, professional and informative.

But, in one essential respect, it was occasionally mistaken. That is in terms of an obsession with so-called “track bias”, a misnomer which pervades American horseracing analysis and which has found a foothold nearer to home.

Such analysis maintains that tracks suit or count against horses depending on their position in a race irrespective of how fast or how slow they are going.

There may be physical reasons why being at the front confers some sort of an advantage – such as if those further back have to face significant kickback or challenge away from a “golden highway” where the track is faster – but they have to be weighed up against other considerations, of which energy efficiency is usually the most important.

Physical laws do not distinguish between horses being third from the front or third from the back in energy terms, but they do punish those that go too quickly or too slowly compared to optimum efficiency, and this will be reflected in those horses’ overall times.

The waters can be muddied by a number of factors, which is presumably why magical thinking persists that pace biases apply across an entire card rather than at a by-race level.

These factors include: that a particularly fast or particularly slow surface makes it difficult for jockeys to adjust pacing to get the most out of their horses; that if you are on the best horse the most efficient way to get from A to B is to go quicker than the same for your rivals; and that the perception of an unchanging pace advantage may create a selection bias in which jockeys on the best horses try to get to the front and those out the back are those that are not so good.

All of these were at play to varying extents at the latest Breeders’ Cup, at which the turf surface was typically fast and the dirt surface was atypically slow (the second-slowest of 22 meetings at the track since the summer using Timeform data, which factors in ability and weights carried).

The results were mixed, with the following the figures for the race winners themselves.

Breeders' Cup 2019 sectional breakdown

In most instances, where the winner went faster than par, so did the majority of its significant rivals.

There were a couple of exceptions on the turf course, on which the physical reality of a short straight and the difficulty often associated with getting a clear run in coming from behind means that a “run fast and hang on” approach can pay off (but will affect overall time).

What at one stage was described as a “front-runners’ track”, especially the dirt one, turned into anything but, as a succession of leaders – not least Shancelot, Serengeti Empress and McKinzie – overdid things at or near the front.

The crucial point in all of this is that pace varies on a by-race basis and should therefore be analysed on a by-race basis.

There may be elements at play which mean that inefficient rides pay off, but their effect can be quantified and factored in. That applies to racing in Britain as much as it does to racing in the US or on Planet Zog.

There is no such thing as a pace bias which applies immutably across an entire card. An understanding of the true dynamics of horseracing will be much improved by this basic realisation.

The best way in which to judge pace is through time, not through visuals, and the best way of all is to have those times put on a plate for you – precisely, accurately and consistently – such as happens with Total Performance Data already.

Their coverage of last Friday’s Vertem Futurity – moved to Newcastle on Tapeta – is to be found as usual in colour-coded form in the Results Section on this site.

As a result, we know that the Futurity was strongly-run – “Even to Fast” according to the headline figures – and that the finish was not especially quick with the notable exception of the winner Kameko’s 11.52s penultimate furlong, which proved to be decisive.

It requires a bit more digging to establish that Kameko’s time was far and away the fastest of four at a mile on the card and that it translates into a very smart timefigure in a wider context.

I have a 118 time rating on the effort but minimal sectional upgrades on the principals, all of whom recorded last-2f finishing speeds close to the 98.0% par. To a large degree, what you saw was what you got, and what you saw and got was pretty good.

In terms of the future, I suspect that Kameko may prove to be a miler, though one who gets the trip well on a stiff track with a strong pace, as here.

His striding here (2.48 strides/second maximum, 2.27 minimum) and previously suggests as much, while Innisfree (2.34/2.22), Year of The Tiger (2.38/2.20) and Mogul (2.38/2.26) are more obviously 10f and perhaps 12f prospects.

By contrast, fifth-placed Kinross failed to get home over this extra furlong, revving highly at 2.51/2.38, similar to the unofficial figures he recorded at 7f at Newmarket on his debut. The son of Kingman needs to relax better to stay a mile, let alone further.   

Sectional Spotlight
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