Sectional Spotlight

Was Pinotubo an unlucky loser in the Prix du Moulin? Simon Rowlands presents the evidence in his latest column.

  • Tuesday 08 September
  • Blog
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Let us get one thing out of the way before we go further: my answer to the almost inevitable question “how many winners have you ridden?” is “none”, though I did once win a cuddly toy on the Kentucky Derby ball-rolling game at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

But I have spent a lifetime trying to perfect ways of evaluating horseracing performance, when I could have, and possibly should have, done something else altogether. In that respect, I can claim to have watched and analysed an awful lot of winners, and losers too.

One of those ways of evaluating horseracing performance is through sectional times. The time measurement of performances in micro-detail enables us to establish where horses have run fast and slow, compared to themselves as well as to others, and sometimes where they have lost or won races.

The theory is that there is a way for horses to run efficiently, depending on the context in which they find themselves, and that significant departures from efficiency will impact the time it takes for them to get from A to B.

The best way I know of to establish efficiency is to identify performances in which horses ran about as fast as they could and the sectional times that gave rise to that. The final step is to convert the findings into percentages, for a sectional, whether well-paced or not, is a proportion of a whole.

Where the final 400 metres of the 1600-metre track at Longchamp is concerned, the magic figure is about 102.0%. That is, in order to run efficiently, a horse should be finishing at approximately 102.0% of its average race speed. Below 100% is a slow finish, implying a faster pace earlier, and above 105% is a fast finish, implying a slower pace before it.

These are the times and finishing speed %s of the runners in Sunday’s Prix du Moulin de Longchamp, with the figures derived from video, along with the previous year’s times by the same means. The two races were run on similar going, and resulted in similar overall times, but came about very differently.

Every one of this year’s finishing speeds was above par, indicating a fast finish relative to the horse’s overall time. Indeed, they are a long way above par as these things go. Even Romanised finished quickly in a wider context, and he was beaten nearly 15 lengths.

By contrast, the 2019 Moulin was close to perfectly run, with just small upgrades for some of those behind the winner.

Finishing speed pars vary by course, distance and sectional length, but that figure of 102.0% for the closing stages at Longchamp is fairly typical. Less than 8% of winners have exceeded 110.0% finishing speeds in the entire Total Performance Data Flat Archive. Persian King was flying late on.

If Persian King was flying, then what was Pinatubo doing? Indeed, what had he and jockey James Doyle been doing previously?!

By my reckoning, Pinatubo gained 0.20s (just over a length) on Persian King against a strong pace bias in the penultimate split and 0.25s (approaching two lengths) in the final one, but he was beaten 0.25s, officially returned as one and three quarter lengths.

The remainder of the runners, finishing quickly compared to their average race speeds remember, were left standing.

The next step is to upgrade performances according to how much out of line with par they have been. This is more complicated, but it is a process that has been refined over decades now.

One thing to remember is that differences from par will have an exponential effect – in line with physical laws – so that modest departures from par count for little but large ones count for an awful lot.

Using the final 400 metres figures gets you the poundage upgrades above, which are then added to the timefigure to get the sectional ratings in the final column. It is possible to use information from other sectionals also, but the outcome is much the same.

It is also possible to quibble about the exact amounts that horses should be upgraded, especially in extreme cases like this. But if you do that you need a process that can be applied objectively under a multitude of circumstances, and which produces plausible figures, as long-established sectional upgrading does.

The conclusion in this instance is not borderline: it is stark. Pinatubo deserves to be upgraded by three to four lengths more than the horse who beat him by less than two. He was unlucky, and it is possible to estimate the degree to which he was unlucky. 

That conclusion may be no big deal to some of you, but there are plenty (none of them sectionalistas, I fancy) who do not see it that way. 

Pinatubo was left with too much to do against a very smart rival who was not stopping, and it reflects notably well on him that he got as close as he did.

A comparison between the on-screen leader sectionals for the six races at the course and distance on Sunday’s card adds further detail.

The die was cast at an early stage. The leader in the Moulin (Circus Maximus) covered the first 600 metres slower than the leaders in one of the two-year-old maidens and two of the handicaps. He was still behind the handicap leaders with 600 metres to go, after which the Moulin exploded into action.

James Doyle on Pinatubo got this wrong. It is not necessary to have ridden even one winner to say that – I refer you to my opening remarks – but simply to consider the evidence.

But that also does not mean that Doyle should be thrown under the bus as a result. Race-riding is difficult, and pace judgement may be the most difficult aspect of all. When it goes wrong it underlines just how well jockeys, including Doyle, are doing when they get it right.

To err is human. Punters, more than most, should realise this. Every day, they pick the wrong horse, the wrong race, and sometimes the wrong jockey. Let us cut the guys and girls on top a bit of slack when it goes wrong.

But let us also not shy away from being frank about what the numbers say, either. The numbers do not lie.

Sectional Spotlight
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