Sectional Spotlight

Sectional timing expert Simon Rowlands analyses the action on the New Course from the last two days of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, including the wins of Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo and Stayers' Hurdle victor Paisley Park.

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Thursday at Cheltenham was a very special day, on which superb equine performances vied for top billing with some even better human-interest stories.

You are probably in the wrong game if the latter did not move you, at least a little bit. But after the excitement had abated a more clinical interpretation of events is required if costly betting mistakes are to be avoided in the future.

A few myths and fake facts are still doing the rounds about the Stayers’ Hurdle win of Paisley Park, for instance. These appear to include that the race was run in an overall time 0.4s slower than the Pertemps Final won by Sire du Berlais (we have electronic timing at the start of races for the first time this year) when detailed video analysis suggests the opposite is the case.

They also include, at least in some quarters, the contention that the Stayers’ Hurdle was run at a “ridiculously strong” gallop, when it was not. The leader in the Stayers’ was nearly 10 lengths behind the leader in the Pertemps at halfway.

Even using the “proper” overall times, the Stayers’ is only about 3lb quicker than the Pertemps when something like 16lb might have been expected given the winners’ respective abilities.

Both Sire du Berlais and Paisley Park put in strong late runs, the former getting up near the line and the latter sweeping to the front approaching the last before making a mistake there and idling. Their times from the second-last were remarkably similar, as their individual sectional breakdowns show.

Both horses returned finishing speed %s from two out (about 850 yards from the finish on the New Course on the day by my calculations) of a fraction over 104% and can be upgraded, but by a little not a lot.

It was only when Sam Spinner took up the running from Nautical Nitwit that the leader in the Stayers’ caught up with the leader in the Pertemps. That came at the fifth-last, which Sam Spinner reached 24.5s sooner than he had done on softer ground in 2018 when the race was run at a dawdle. The latest edition was run at a fair pace, not stronger.

The final day at Cheltenham was less indisputably glorious, but it did deliver a compelling Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, which went to Al Boum Photo in a time around 11.0s faster than the following Foxhunter Chase.

That is a lot, even allowing for the differences in abilities, and Al Boum Photo is probably going to be credited with a top-class timefigure to go with his top-class effort on form.

But, in terms of sectionals, it makes more sense to compare Al Boum Photo’s individual effort with other Cheltenham Gold Cup winners, such as the last three: Native River, Sizing John and Don Cossack.

Taking that trio’s fence-by-fence times and adjusting them pro-rata to the overall time recorded by Al Boum Photo gives the following “pars” alongside those of the latest winner.

Al Boum Photo ran remarkably efficiently, level with par at the third, 1.1s (about five and a half lengths) ahead at the ninth, all but level two fences later, 1.0s (about five lengths) ahead again at the fourth-last, at the top of the hill, and then back to very close to par thereafter. The runners omitted the third-last, though that usually makes little difference in such circumstances.

Impressively, Al Boum Photo was about three lengths quicker up the run-in than par, just when his supporters were wondering if his stamina might begin to ebb. No way, not today: fortunately for all concerned!

That run-in time of 17.6s by Al Boum Photo compares favourably with the 20.1s for Hazel Hill in the Foxhunter and the 18.7s for Croco Bay in the much shorter Grand Annual on the same card.  

While none of those sectional checkpoints was greatly different to par, it should be remembered that Al Boum Photo himself was a bit off the pace – mostly around five to six lengths – so the leaders were trapping on a bit, without going crazy.

It should also be remembered that we only know what that overall time was AFTER the event, not before, and drier conditions would have made those lead times perfectly acceptable. That is why detailed sectional analysis is best done with all the figures at your disposal rather than on the fly.

Sectional Spotlight
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