Sectional Spotlight

Ahead of Justify’s bid to complete the Triple Crown by landing the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, Simon Rowlands compares striding metrics of Justify’s victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with the wins of Secretariat and American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes.

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One potential Triple Crown – the British one – sank on the second leg at Epsom last weekend but another – the US version – is still very much on and due to come to its climax on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, which you will be able to view live on At The Races.

Whereas Saxon Warrior could not add The Derby at Epsom to his victory in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, coming only fourth to the long-striding Masar, the unbeaten Justify already has the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in the bag.

He needs “only” to win at Belmont to become the thirteenth US Triple Crown winner in history and just the second since the 1970s.   

That “only” is in inverted commas, because winning a third successive top-class race – this one at what is a marathon trip by US standards – in the space of little more than a month has proved beyond many a good horse before now.

The hiatus between Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978 and American Pharoah’s in 2015 might have been unrepresentative, but no-one should imagine that the task is anything other than difficult.

With Masar having shown the way for striding analysis before the Derby, I thought I would look at the same metrics of stride length and stride frequency for Justify, and compare them to those displayed in the Belmont Stakes by American Pharoah and by the phenomenal 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

To what degree were Justify’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes striding patterns similar to those exhibited by those other two legends when they completed the job?

This mostly required poring over slow-motion videos of various qualities, as well as a small amount of estimation. But Justify’s Preakness figures have been provided by Total Performance Data in partnership with Equibase and the Maryland Jockey Club (which is a good job as much of the race was hidden in fog!).

Firstly, here are Justify’s striding metrics for the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Justify Kentucky Derby
Justify Preakness Stakes
Ave strideSectionCadence (per sec)
Ave strideSectionCadence (per sec)
22.2 ft10f - 9f2.47
20.4 ft9.5f - 9f2.42
27.4 ft9f - 8f2.34
26.0 ft9f - 8f2.35
25.7 ft8f - 7f2.23
25.8 ft8f - 7f2.25
25.8 ft7f - 6f2.13
25.4 ft7f - 6f2.16
24.2 ft6f - 5f2.13
25.1 ft6f - 5f2.15
25.5 ft5f - 4f2.07
25.4 ft5f - 4f2.15
24.3 ft4f - 3f2.07
25.0 ft4f - 3f2.18
24.3 ft3f - 2f2.11
24.4 ft3f - 2f2.19
23.2 ft2f - 1f2.11
23.5 ft2f - 1f2.17
23.2 ft1f - line2.10
23.0 ft1f - line2.12

Justify has a big stride – almost freakishly big in the opening stages of his races – which, along with a fairly rapid cadence, has enabled him to take control at the front end at an early stage.

Crucially, however, his stride length and cadence have both reduced in the closing stages, to 85% of his maximum in the 10f Kentucky Derby and 88% of his maximum in the 9.5f Preakness.

Race replay: Justify wins the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in May.

The Belmont Stakes wins of Secretariat and American Pharoah look very different.

Secretariat 1973 Belmont
American Pharoah 2015 Belmont
Ave strideSectionCadence (per sec)
Ave strideSectionCadence (per sec)
22.2 ft12f - 11f2.41
24.4 ft12f - 11f2.24
24.2 ft11f - 10f2.40
26.0 ft11f - 10f2.10
24.9 ft10f - 9f2.40
25.4 ft10f - 9f2.14
24.9 ft9f - 8f2.33
25.0 ft9f - 8f2.12
24.9 ft8f - 7f2.25
25.5 ft8f - 7f2.10
24.7 ft7f - 6f2.24
25.6 ft7f - 6f2.09
24.9 ft6f - 5f2.20
25.3 ft6f - 5f2.07
24.3 ft5f - 4f2.22
25.8 ft5f - 4f2.13
24.3 ft4f - 3f2.22
25.8 ft4f - 3f2.10
23.6 ft3f - 2f2.22
26.5 ft3f - 2f2.12
24.3 ft2f - 1f2.23
24.4 ft2f - 1f2.15
24.2 ft1f - line2.16
25.2 ft1f - line2.14

While Justify has a stride at least as long as American Pharoah did, and longer than Secretariat did by some way, both those horses sustained this aspect much better than he did from start to finish. Their final-furlong stride lengths were both about 97% of their race peaks.

Justify is capable of “revving” fast early in a race – often a sign of a horse with stamina limitations – but it does not last for long. By comparison, Secretariat geared up quickly also, but he sustained it better until near the very end, while American Pharoah was a slower strider by some way but was still turning over at 96% of his race peak when approaching the winning post.

Speed is a direct function of stride length and stride frequency, to put it in a bluntly mechanical way, with both limited by physical features and liable to deterioration as exhaustion sets in.

Horses are not machines, of course, though that amazingly metronomic 24-feet-plus stride of Secretariat did prompt the famous “…he’s moving like a tremendous machine!...” commentary in what might well have been the single best equine performance in the history of horseracing.

Justify will not have to be a Secretariat to win the Belmont, and he may not even have to be an American Pharoah given the opposition. But he is going to have run differently to how he has run before if he is not to run out of puff towards the end.

I have significant doubts, but what is for sure is that it is going to be fascinating to find out!

Race replay: Secretariat wins the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

At an altogether lower level than those mentioned above, a couple who catch my eye in Britain on Friday are KING OF DREAMS (Brighton 4:40) and EPAULEMENT (Haydock 8:35).

The former ended up further back than ideal at Chelmsford last time and impressed with making late headway to be a clear second to the more forwardly ridden Hawatif. That looks a stepping stone for a win off what remains quite a generous mark, with Jamie Spencer replacing a succession of claiming riders.

Similar comments apply to Epaulement, who put in some sharp late sectionals (12.0s, 11.6s then 12.2s according to TPD) when going on well in second to Maypole at Wolverhampton last time. An extra couple of furlongs should help, as would avoiding the kind of barging match he experienced early on at Dunstall Park.

Sectional Spotlight

Brighton 16:40, 8 June 2018

Haydock 20:35, 8 June 2018

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