It is quite something to open your newspaper of a Sunday morning to find that an elder stateswoman of horseracing has described a large portion of your so-called life’s work as “a load of bollocks”.
That is the fate that befell me this week, with the individual in question being Henrietta Knight – trainer of triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate – and the work thus described being “the sectional timing of races”.
In other answers in Racing Post Sunday’s Q&A, “Hen” stated that “I still struggle with computers” and “basically I’m absolutely useless”. Her aversion to sectional timing becomes a bit more understandable.
There is little point in my trying to talk round someone so implacably opposed, when the arguments have now been made so many times before. But it occurs to me that one of the “problems” with adoption of sectionals from Hen and and others who don't value the times is that the crucial information is not usually expressed in the horsey language with which they are familiar.
To deny that times matter in horseracing is like denying gravity, for what else is one horse beating another than a manifestation of getting from A to B in a shorter time? Time and distance are interchangeable in horseracing and maybe the latter has more resonance with some.
It may seem highly testicular to say that one horse beat another by, say, 2.0s, or that it ran from the final obstacle 1.2s quicker than anything else in the race, but make that 10 lengths and six lengths and perhaps the penny will drop.
Lengths matter, or at least I think so. It would have made no difference to the order of finish had Best Mate run four lengths slower in the 2003 Cheltenham Gold Cup, but the same shortfall would have seen him lose the 2002 edition and finish unplaced in the 2004 one.
Margins at the finish are simple conversions of times, and have been in Britain since 1997.
Visual margins along the way could be, and increasingly often are, expressed as times also.
The crucial thing about times, however, is that they measure such differentials with pinpoint accuracy, against a universal constant, and those times can then be used to produce meaningful insights.
Most form analysis of a vaguely sophisticated nature takes sectional timing into account these days, as do many ratings, betting markets, and increasingly even the buying, selling and training of horses for which Hen is rightly renowned.
As something of an olive branch, and a belated tribute, I thought I would look at Best Mate’s three Cheltenham wins through the prism of lengths, not times. It is necessary first to adjust overall times and splits for the implied conditions under which they occurred in order to make the comparisons valid.
Most of this time-based number-crunching has taken place behind the scenes, mindful of the sensitivities of those involved. But it is best to point out that the implied going in 2002 was about 10.5s/39 lb/50 lengths slower overall than the same in 2003 and 2004.
That differential has been allowed for in the following. For ease of comprehension, all times have been converted at 5 lengths per second.
The “in-race” events might be described thus:
The 2004 edition of Best Mate hung back to begin with compared to his other two selves, “led” towards the end of the back straight on the first circuit, was briefly reeled in with about a circuit to go, then piled on the pace before being caught between the last two and slowing up the run-in. In the real world, this Best Mate held on by just half a length from the strong-finishing Sir Rembrandt.
The 2002 vintage “led” early, was mostly in “second” thereafter, had ground to make up four from home (the top of the hill) then stayed on without quite getting in a blow. In real life, this Best Mate beat the Triumph Hurdle and Punchestown Gold Cup winner Commanche Court by one and three quarter lengths, with a 12-year-old See More Business in third.
Best Mate in 2003 was just about the best Best Mate we saw, mate. Ridden more conservatively (compared to himself) than the year either side, he bore down on Best Mate v2002 and v2004 after three out – shooting clear of his rivals in the 2003 race itself at that stage – before soon “leading” and running on well.
This Best Mate eventually won where it mattered by 10 lengths from Truckers Tavern (Commanche Court and See More Business unplaced), having been 2.4s – sorry, about 12 lengths – clear approaching the last. Imperious.
Triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winners are as rare as hen’s teeth. At his best, Best Mate really was the dogs’, and I reckon that is something his former trainer and I could agree on.
One of the “problems” with sectional timing, besides how the information is expressed, may be that there is just so much of it. The above table may seem daunting to some, and yet it merely scratches the surface of Best Mate’s three Cheltenham Gold Cups.
The following are, therefore, a few bullet points from the good-class racing at Cheltenham and Punchestown in recent days, to whet the appetite for a deeper dig as it were.
• The ground was at its most testing at Cheltenham by the Sunday, but that day provided both the slowest and fastest chase finishes in absolute terms, The Big Breakaway’s race completing the run-in in 17.3s and Put The Kettle On’s in 21.1s, a difference of more than 15 lengths over just 244 yards.
• For Pleasure’s slow 22.7s finish over hurdles on Sunday for a run-in that was about 40 yards longer had been matched the day before by Stimulating Song and almost matched by Duffle Coat (22.4s). The races won by On The Blind Side on Saturday (19.2s) and Does He Know on Friday (19.3s) were again over 15 lengths faster up the run-in.
• The Unibet Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown was 13.0s (about 175 yards to use a different measurement) faster overall than the handicap at the same distance later but 0.5s (about two and a half lengths) slower up the run-in, a testament to a well-run race as well as to Abacadabras’s idling.
• The Grade 2 Novice Chase won by Felix Desjy on Saturday provided comfortably the fastest race time (49.8s) from three out for chases across the two days at Punchestown, and tested speed more than stamina despite some impressions to the contrary.
• Asterion Forlonge was a remarkable 10.7s (about 150 yards) quicker in winning a 20f beginners chase at Punchestown on Saturday than Daly Tiger, the winner of the handicap chase at the same distance two races later, but with similar late splits. That seems to reflect poorly on the latter more than well on the former (and the rivals he beat by not especially far), but time will tell.