There is a saying in horseracing “it’s why they run the races”, meaning that even if a horse looks a good thing on paper, or on a spreadsheet, that view may not pass the only test that really matters: the race itself.
Those of us who figure things out on paper, or on spreadsheets, would do well to remember this one inescapable fact.
It is always relevant but seems especially so after a weekend in which Enable did not enter the history books as the only three-time winner of the Qatar-sponsored Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe but instead as the only horse, in the modern era at least, to have been beaten twice at odds on in the race.
Various theories were floated 12 months ago, including that the ground was too soft – despite its being less testing than when Enable won the 2017 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes easily, and despite her touching 14/1 on in running – and the pace.
The spreadsheets were useful regarding the latter – after the event, anyway! – as sectionals showed that the 2019 Arc field went too fast for the conditions, and that Enable struck for home prematurely.
Even then, it is not cut and dried that Waldgeist was “lucky” to beat her, for he did more running than ideal himself but still managed to find the stamina to win by fully one and three quarter lengths.
Both ground and pace have again been put forward as a reason for Enable’s loss on Sunday. The former is more credible than the latter, if more difficult to illustrate.
Using the times and sectionals of all races on the cards, and comparing them with standards and pars, this year’s Arc card was run on ground that was around 50 lb slower than 12 months before and about 15 lb slower even than that 2017 race at Ascot.
It was the slowest ground that Enable had ever encountered, and that many of her rivals had encountered. In that respect, it was an unknown and a possible reason for her demise.
Where the pace is concerned, we can put the last three Arcs side by side and compare them, in terms of absolute times and the all-important finishing speed %s (speed at the finish as a % of a horse’s speed for the race overall). The par finishing speed for the Arc is just under 102%.
I should point out at this stage that I am not using the official sectionals published by France Galop, some of which have significant offsets at the finish and possibly along the way also.
Enable was very close to par in 2018, unlike the fast-finishing runner-up Sea of Class, paid for her exertions late on in 2019 (but so did everything else to varying degrees), and got involved in something of a sprint finish, within the context of the testing conditions, on Sunday.
That last remark having been made, Enable was slowest of the principals in the last 600 metres of Sunday’s race, though admittedly not knocked about when held.
“The steady pace was against her” would have been more convincing had she finished faster and simply failed to overhaul rivals who had a positional advantage over her.
It is also emphatically not the case that Enable lacks speed, at least when running on ground which suits her. Her CV is punctuated with fast splits as well as some fast overall times. She once ran an estimated 10.5s (42.9 mph) for the penultimate furlong at the Curragh. That is seriously fast!
“It’s why they run the races”, indeed: so that we could find out over time that Enable was both very good and very fast. Just not in the mud on Sunday, unfortunately.
Occasionally, you see a performance that seems to defy explanation, in a good not a bad way. It is long odds on that nearly everyone else will have seen it in a similar light. But not always.
The crowded schedule of Group races at Longchamp at the weekend meant that some efforts did not come under the microscope as much as they normally would.
A somewhat disappointing field was weakened further by the late withdrawal of St Mark’s Basilica. In his absence, the Coventry winner and Prix Morny runner-up Nando Parrado went off at odds on. Sealiway walloped him by eight lengths.
Funny things sometimes happen on very soft ground (see above!), and Sealiway had run to no higher than 104 on my figures in five previous attempts. “Fluke, move on”, I hear you say (and I have to admit I muttered to myself at the time). Not so fast.
Sealiway’s race was the first on the card, so his time could not be viewed in a fuller context to begin with. It can now.
That fuller context is pretty remarkable. His winning time was easily fastest of four at the course and distance on the card, with the others recorded by older horses, all of them carrying less weight than he did, and one of them being One Masterin the Group 1 Qatar Prix de la Foret. Wow!
Sealiway was six to seven lengths quicker overall than two of those other winners and more than double that quicker than the final one. Finishing speed %s show that none of the races departed much from par.
Depending on the precise methodology you use – the Standard Times and the weight-for-age allowances, among other things – that makes Sealiway 39 lb superior to a 111-rated Group 1 winner in One Master and 42 lb/65 lb better than older handicappers rated 97/82 respectively on my figures.
That is if taken at face value. But even if you make an allowance for a deterioration in the surface it suggests Sealiway was as good as, or very nearly as good as, he looked.
My figures suggest he should be in the mid-120s. My gut has backed off a bit but has still rated him, at 123, the best two-year-old seen so far in Europe. In a strongly run race on soft/heavy going and at a shortened 7f, anyway.
Fortunately, I do not have to set that in stone in the way other ratings agencies do, though I have now committed it to paper. You may see me back-pedalling if it does not work out!