Sectional Spotlight

Simon Rowlands has analysed the Betfair Ascot Chase and outlined how the benefits of sectional timing extend to integrity and education following a controversial contest at Wolves last month.

  • Tuesday 18 February
  • Blog
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Most of us probably remember from our childhoods the tale of the race between the tortoise and the hare, in which the hare went off fast, then stopped, and the tortoise maintained a steady pace before plodding past to win.  

Something similar nearly happened on Saturday in the Betfair Ascot Chase, with the crucial difference being that the tortoise fell at the final fence when likely to prevail. Which reminds me of one of Aesop’s lesser-known fables: the one titled “Jumping Is the Name of the Game”.

There were two hares in this story – Cyrname and RIDERS ONTHE STORM – and one tortoise – Traffic Fluide – and, before connections of the last-named complain, I wish to point out that this is all figurative and that Traffic Fluide is a talented tortoise, as it were, and might be a hare in a different context.

The hares at Ascot briefly looked to have the race between them but then paid for their earlier exertions, and the tortoise was alongside chief hare (Riders Onthe Storm) when departing. The other hare, odds-on Cyrname, was back-pedaling when also coming down at the last.

There are a number of ways of illustrating what happened using by-obstacle sectionals, but the simplest and starkest is the time-honoured finishing speed % measure, which has Riders Onthe Storm completing from three out at a speed just 92.9% of his average race speed. That is painfully slow.

Another is to compare the horses’ splits with by-obstacle pars throughout the race, which is something I did with Cyrname’s far more successful appearance at the same course and distance in the 2019 Christy Chase in November. 

Betfair Ascot Chase table

Betfair Ascot Chase graph

As with the earlier race, the times have been adjusted for conditions and mapped to a 170 overall timefigure. Such a figure is beyond many horses. It is not beyond Cyrname when he is on song, but it is when he is not.

It is probably just beyond Riders Onthe Storm, at least at a testing 2m 5f. And it is almost certainly beyond Traffic Fluide, but a 153 timefigure – which is about what he would have registered had he stood up – is within his scope, providing he is asked to run like a 153 horse not a 170 horse.

The 2020 Betfair Ascot Chase started off steadily but built gradually so that by the third-last (split number 15 on the graph) the hares had hared off and Janika was being dropped. Meanwhile, Traffic Fluide (the grey line in the graph) was racing at around 5 to 10 lengths slower than the 170 par and in something close to his own comfort zone.

It all changed as the runners came into the home straight. Cyrname stopped, Riders Onthe Storm slowed, and Traffic Fluide more or less maintained his pace to loom upsides the latter approaching the last.
Had Traffic Fluide not fallen, he might well have won, if not by much, and seemingly by dint of running like the mid-150s horse he is throughout. Aesop’s Sectionals.

The benefits of sectional timing are varied and substantial. You have read about many of them, as they relate to winner-finding and making sense of what has already happened, on these pages. But they extend to integrity and education, also.

There was a controversial race at Wolverhampton a month ago, won by Wanaasah, who made all and was never challenged. Post-race reports included a remark from a BHA steward to the effect that the race would be looked into.

That is how it should be. Investigations are healthy and good for public confidence when one horse is gifted a race, though I would be surprised if anything untoward were to be found here. It looked like cock-up, rather than conspiracy.

Thanks to Wolverhampton being covered by Total Performance Data, the figures are not just available but extensively contextualised in the Results Section elsewhere on this site.

The BHA’s Integrity Department confirmed that it had referred to them, including the colour-coding (red for fast, blue for slow, and various hues for in between), which they described as “very helpful”, and which confirms what went on.

Wanaasah colour-coding

It was such a weird race that it deserves a bit more explanation, however. Wanaasah went off quicker than ideal (three of her early sectionals, not shown, were red), and the others were entitled to leave her alone at that stage. However, as can be seen, her mid-race sectionals were far more measured while theirs were too slow.

The result was that Wanaasah entered the back straight for the final time several lengths ahead of par, but an enormous amount ahead of the pack (Fearless Warrior in second was not far off optimum).
Wanaasah needed to stop dramatically from that point to be caught, but she largely kept going and the faster-than-par late splits of her rivals were only enough to narrow the gap slightly.

The more you learn about sectionals, the more you come to appreciate just how difficult pace judgement is, and how brilliantly some leading riders pull it off. But for inexperienced jockeys it tends to be a steep learning curve.

I once sat in on a stewards’ enquiry at Happy Valley, in which a young apprentice was called in and shown that he had gone several lengths quicker than par, as judged by sectionals, mid-race. No action was taken (the horse was an outsider and finished unplaced), but the message was clear: the evidence exists to help you to learn from your mistakes and to become a better rider.

Now that sectional timing is more widespread in Britain, it could be incorporated as part of the formal educational process. The jockeys in the Wolverhampton race could be shown the splits as well as the video and have it explained to them just where, and to what degree, they got it wrong.

It is no crime to make an honest mistake. But it is a crime not to learn from the experience if the evidence exists to show precisely how and why that mistake occurred.   

Sectional Spotlight
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