It has been one of the wettest winters on record, so it might have been expected that the ground at Cheltenham on the first two days of the Festival would be soft. Just how soft was a surprise, however.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Arkle Chase were the slowest this century, the latter by some way, and the majority of other races on the first two days were the same.
Some of those past editions have taken place on “soft” going and a small number on “heavy”. The latter looked the most accurate ground description on this occasion.
In order to gauge such things, of course, you need accurate times taken from when the leader passes the starter, but some of the “official” times this week were found wanting in that respect. It also helps to have smooth rolling starts when taking your own times: there were not a lot of them, either!
Be that as it may, we can learn a good deal about what went on by applying sectional analysis to events on those first two days, both of which took place on the Old Course.
The simplest and yet one of the most useful measures is to establish a finishing speed as a % of the average speed for the race overall, taken at a suitably late juncture. In this case, I used three out over fences and two out over hurdles.
A slow finishing speed % – of below 97 mindful of Cheltenham’s stiff finish – implies a stronger pace before that and a premium on stamina. A fast finishing speed % – of over 101, say – implies a steadier pace earlier and a greater emphasis on speed within the context of the ground and trip in question.
Immediately, it is apparent that the Supreme and the Ballymore were strongly-run contests which tested stamina: those finishing speed %s are some way below the pars for the two course and distances.
Towards the other end of the scale, the Ultima Handicap Chase, the National Hunt Chase and the Coral Cup were steadily-run (or, in the NH Chase’s case, unevenly-paced) affairs which played more to speed.
That very high finishing speed % for the Cross-Country Chase reflects the fact that the emphasis in that race is necessarily on jumping more than running until that last half-mile.
We can also look at some detailed obstacle-to-obstacle splits for the leaders – hurdlers in the first table, chasers in the second, with fastest split highlighted in red and slowest in blue – to get a fuller picture.
The pace of the Arkle was hottest well before the closing stages. Imperial Aura came home like a good horse. Politologue smashed up the Champion Chase field on the run to three out. And, perhaps most intriguingly, the RSA Chase featured a burn-up between three out and the last and a slow (unless you were Champ himself!) run-in.
It can be questionable to compare race times on different days as even minor changes in ground and other factors can translate into significant differences, but conditions were similar across the two days.
We can also do more detailed one-on-one comparisons for races run at the same distances on the same day, starting with the Supreme vs the Champion, which I had identical in terms of overall time.
Using a conversion rate of five lengths to a second shows that the leader in the Supreme – Asterion Forlonge – was between six and 10 lengths ahead of the leader in the Champion – Petit Mouchoir – between the second flight and the third-last one.
Thereafter, the pace in the former race slowed – Asterion Forlonge paying quite a price – and the pace of the first two in the Champion was maintained. Epatante and Sharjah ran close to par in the closing stages, with the former recording the exact same speed late on as for the race overall.
It is the runners in the Supreme who deserve upgrading more for racing inefficiently – faster early and slower late – than those in the Champion, though not to a large degree with Shishkin and Abacadabras.
Nonetheless, it is impressive stuff from those two to equal the time of a Champion Hurdler while running less efficiently than she did and carrying 4 lb more into the bargain. Make no mistake, Abacadabras (who arguably hit the front too soon) and Shishkin are very good by novice standards.
The comparison between the Ballymore and the Coral Cup the following day is somewhat less revealing as the latter was a tactical affair.
The differential was huge in this instance: in the region of 45 lengths (more than half a furlong) by mid-race all the way until the second-last. Thereafter, the Coral Cup principals made up several lengths by the last, and again up the run-in, but were too far adrift to make up more than a little of the leeway.
Was it a case of the novices going too fast or the handicappers going too slow? Well those finishing speed %s show it was a bit of both, but what must not be in doubt is just how stamina-sapping the Ballymore was.
Envoi Allen showed stamina and courage in abundance, but he did get to run closer to par than his main rivals, the connections of all of which are entitled to fancy their chances of finishing closer to – but most likely not in front of – Envoi Allen another day.
As with the Supreme, the abiding message is that the cream of this crop of novice hurdlers is good, very good. They have managed to impress visually from the start, and, more importantly, they have continued to impress compared to the objective benchmark of the clock.
There are exciting times behind us, and, unless I am much mistaken, there are exciting times ahead of us, too.
This ATR Sectional Spotlight Special will return on Saturday with a summary of the action on Thursday and Friday, including the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, of course.