Sectional Spotlight

Sectional timing expert Simon Rowlands has run the rule over the first two days of Royal Ascot 2020.

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This is a Royal Ascot like no other, and not in an entirely bad way, either.

While the absence of a crowd is to be regretted, and the absence of pomp and circumstance will be felt by some, Royal Ascot 2020 marked the occasion when sectional times came out from behind closed doors and stood proudly in full view.

Ascot has been experimenting with sectional timing for a while now, but this year’s offering takes it to a higher level, as the data is now presented here in a format with which At The Races regulars will be familiar.

Want to know just how fast Battaash ran along the way in winning Tuesday’s King Stand Stakes?

The answer is to be found in the Results Section on this site, with individual splits appearing on the “Sectional Times” tab – colour coded in comparison to par for ease of reference – as well as Efficiency Grades and other measures on the “Sectional Tools” tab (the flying gelding got an “A” for efficiency, but not an “A+”: still some small room for improvement!).  

Want to know if being held up in Wednesday’s Prince of Wales’s Stakes helped the winner Lord North or hindered him? The answer is to be found there, too (it was, perhaps surprisingly, more the latter than the former).

I could just leave it there, after urging you all to go forth and lose yourself in the wonderful data, and the stories and insights it provides. Get stuck in.

But there is some further context that can be provided from the first two days, especially in terms of one-on-one comparisons rather than just within-race ones.

Let’s start with the Ribblesdale Stakes and the King Edward VII Stakes – the so-called Ascot Oaks and Ascot Derby – both over 1m 4f and 2 yards (including rail movements) on Tuesday.

Neither race was run in a particularly good time, but that may be explained by the pace, which was steady in both instances, as implied by those fairly high finishing speed %s (the speed of each runner expressed as a % of its average speed for the race overall). Par is a fraction under 100% for this course and distance.

Pyledriver ran 1.08s (more than six lengths) quicker overall than Frankly Darling had done a bit earlier and 0.13s (just under a length) quicker in the final 3f. That said, the latter was faster in each of the last two furlongs (not shown), and that has been factored into the upgrades to conventional timefigures which lead to those sectional ratings.

But here is another thing, the Ribblesdale runner-up Ennistymon ran faster for each of the last three furlongs than did Frankly Darling, and faster for each of the last two than any of the colts.

Frankly Darling was impressive, if well ridden, and value a bit more for being eased, but the filly catching her towards the end against a pace bias deserves plenty of credit, too.

What about the two races at a mile on Tuesday? This is what a summary of the splits tells us.

The Queen Anne ended up being quicker than theDuke of Cambridge, but by only 0.52s when something like 1.32s could be expected given the respective winners’ abilities. This is again down in large part to pace.

The Duke of Cambridge was strongly run – a bit too strongly run as shown by those finishing speeds of 98.1% and below – and small upgrades are required. But the Queen Anne was run a good deal slower than par, resulting in some finishing speed %s well into the 100s and much bigger uplifts.

Circus Maximus and Terebellum showed excellent speed late on, but were going to be difficult to catch in any case given how things panned out, with soft earlier fractions and their positions up front.

Accidental Agent did well as things unfolded, at least compared to others outside the front two, as did seventh-placed Mohaather (23.86s last 2f, 105.7% finishing speed), who ran into all manner of trouble yet still passed seven rivals, who were not stopping, in the final furlong according to the sectionals (he now has a 115 sectional rating with me).

Incidentally, it is worth commenting on the going description in those tables: the times on both Tuesday and Wednesday were quicker, when compared with historical figures, than could have been expected given the official description, especially on the straight course. Puzzling, but nonetheless true.

Let’s move onto Wednesday. 

Something odd has happened here. Given the respective abilities and maturities of the two winners, you would expect Lord North to run something like 1.70s (around 10 lengths) quicker overall than Russian Emperor, but he ran just 0.23s (one and a half lengths) quicker, pretty much all of which came in the final 3f.

When this sort of thing occurs, it sometimes signifies something peculiar earlier in the sectionals in races at longer distances, such as a fast beginning and slow middle. That is not really the case here, though Lord North was lagging 0.68s behind Russian Emperor at one point (not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things).

I am prepared to believe that the Hampton Court Stakes was a superior version of the event (though Time Test and Benbatl have won it since it was elevated to Group 3 in 2011), and that Russian Emperor deserves a bit of extra credit on account of his fast finish. But that still leaves a shortfall from Lord North, never mind those he beat.

Answers on a postcard if you think you know why all of the runners in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes ran as slowly (in relative terms) as they did: in the meantime, I suggest the race needs to be treated with a degree of caution.

Hallelujah! For truly run races, with close-to-par finishing speed %s, in which the principals could be “held up behind” (the two winners, plus Pogo and Baltic Baron) or race up with the pace (Salayel and Vale of Kent).

Some of those further back paid with slow finishes for having mixed it, but, largely, what you saw was what you got, yes?

No. As a reminder that sectionals should never be viewed to the exclusion of all other information, what the above results do not tell you is that there appeared to be a bias against those who raced far side.

Sectionals suggest it was the surface, not the pace, and that Maydanny and Brian Epstein (seventh and eleventh in the Silver Royal Hunt Cup), as well as Raising Sand (eighth in the Royal Hunt Cup proper) can be rated about five lengths better than the result and are therefore ahead of their marks to one degree or another.

And, so, back to Battaash, and that majestic romp in the King’s Stand Stakes. As it happens, we have some sectionals from 12 months ago courtesy of Ascot Racecourse and their partners Longines: they make for an interesting compare and contrast on what was very similar ground.

In 2019, Battaash ran splits of 14.65s, 10.78s, 10.42s (!), 11.00s and 11.85s for a total of 58.74s. This year, he ran 13.77s, 10.89s, 10.64s, 11.20s and 12.14s for a total of 58.64s.

Two clear differences were that Battaash was not reined back this time (the 0.88s difference in that opening furlong is equivalent to more than five lengths) and that he did not take off to such a degree mid-race (the difference of 0.22s for that third furlong is just a length and a half but could have quite a cost at such high speeds).

This year’s Battaash was ridden more positively at the outset but also in a more controlled manner thereafter (until slowing just a bit near the end: a 5f as stiff as Ascot’s 5f does not show him at his very best, after all).  

Incidentally, Blue Point had run a more measured 14.47s, 10.76s, 10.69s, 11.09s and 11.62s for a total of 58.53s last year. Ascot’s stiff 5f was more his cup of tea.

One last thing is that a few people got in touch on Twitter to point out that the runner-up to Battaash on Tuesday, his stable-companion Equilateral, had managed to run fractionally quicker than him if you ignored the opening furlong.

I am not sure if it is wise to disregard a sectional like this, but it is an interesting observation and something I had missed. It is the kind of insight that any of us could achieve when we have comprehensive and trustworthy data put on a plate for all of us to see. Long may that continue.

Another Sectional Spotlight will be online on Monday, covering the remaining three days of Royal Ascot 2020. The sectional figures themselves will continue to be displayed in-race and shortly after it on here.    

Sectional Spotlight
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