In contrast to the first two days of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, which took place on the Old Course and were analysed sectionally here, conditions were somewhat less testing for the New Course races on Thursday and Friday and drying all the time by the latter.
That makes comparisons across the two days trickier, and even perhaps within each day, but there are some useful sectional tools which can help to shed light on what has happened even when this is so.
First and foremost, there is the finishing speed % measure, which expresses a race’s or a horse’s speed in the finish compared to the average speed for the race overall. A high % at the finish indicates a quick closing stage and a greater emphasis on speed; a low % at the finish indicates the opposite.
Because this figure is a ratio, it holds up to a large degree regardless of circumstance. Whether the ground is soft or firm, there is a fairly narrow range in which a horse expends its energy optimally in relation to its overall time. The prevailing conditions are, after all, implied in the overall time that a horse achieved or might achieve.
Plenty may be learnt about how a race panned out just from this one headline figure. The following include the “race” finishing speed %s for the leader at the sectional (two out over hurdles and three out over jumps) and the leader/winner come the line.
One thing is immediately obvious when these figures are compared with those from the first two days: nearly all of those finishing speed %s are higher.
That is due to fewer races being attritional, but even more to the fact that different pars are required on what is essentially a different course.
While the Old Course pars are a bit under 100% (which was the precise finishing speed of Epatante in the Champion Hurdle, remember) they are comfortably over that on the New Course.
The precise reasons for this may be speculated about, but it has more than a little to do with the location of obstacles and the amount of jumping to galloping that occurs at different junctures.
The two races to buck the trend were the Stayers’ Hurdle on the Thursday and the Triumph Hurdle on the Friday. More on the former shortly, but it should be noted that Goshen would have won the latter easily had he not tripped on landing at the last: he was 2.6s (10 to 12 lengths) clear at the time and not stopping.
Nonetheless, even if you lop 2.6s off that closing split, it still comes in slower than the other three hurdle races on the final day. Your eyes could tell you that the Triumph was very strongly-run, as had been anticipated, but the splits quantify and not just confirm that.
Mindful of those higher par figures, it can be stated from the above that the races won by Samcro, Monkfish, Al Boum Photo and It Came To Pass tested finishing speed more than stamina, but the remaining contests did not diverge greatly from optimum.
Let’s look at four of the races as pairs, starting with the Stayers’ and the Pertemps over the same distance within 80 minutes of each other on the Thursday.
Every horse in the former finished at below 97% of its average race speed. It looked as if Apple’s Jade was going too fast (though she could still be matched at short odds in the place market for a long way), but what might not have been so apparent is that she dragged all the other principals into going faster than ideal, too.
The leader splits themselves show that Apple’s Jade was a massive 6.5s (around 30 lengths) ahead of the leader in the Handicap as late in the race as four out. She capitulated thereafter, and her rivals slowed also, if less starkly, with the result that Sire Du Berlais stormed past to reach the line 1.5s (around seven lengths) ahead of Lisnagar Oscar.
Sire Du Berlais ran faster from A to Z than did Lisnagar Oscar, while carrying 2lb more, but he also ran more efficiently. Sectional upgrading narrows the gap but still has the former turning in a better effort than the latter to the tune of something like 4lb (or a similar number of lengths).
A salient feature of this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, remarked upon elsewhere, is that it seemed to be steadily-run, at least for a while.
In winning for the second time, Al Boum Photo ran only 5.0s faster than did It Came To Pass in winning the Foxhunter 40 minutes later. The offset had been 11.4s the year before, which is close to average.
The finishing speed %s seem to confirm the general impression, but they also show that the Foxhunter finished quickly. Or, more specifically, that the Foxhunter winner did and most of his rivals did not.
Those headline splits tell a remarkable tale of the leader in the Foxhunter – Marcle Ridge – being 3.0s and more clear of the leaders in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – primarily Bristol De Mai and Elegant Escape – for more than the opening mile.
Normal service was then resumed, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup runners catching up and surging ahead.
Indeed, they may have gone ahead a bit too quickly: from five out to three out they ran nearly 20 lengths faster than the runners in the Foxhunter, and, as we have seen, they did not extend their advantage over that race’s winner much thereafter.
Still the time differential at the finish is not insignificant. The splits and that time show that the Cheltenham Gold Cup principals ran slower than they might have, due to a steady pace early which meant that speed was emphasised late, but probably not by a large amount.
That is not to take anything away from Al Boum Photo, who is classy and tactically versatile. Those are qualities that should continue to stand him in good stead as he sets off down the road to a historic attempt at a third successive Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2021.