Sectional Spotlight

Simon Rowlands looks at how racing has fallen behind other sports in data provision and data analysis but reveals that British racing has come together under the tripartite agreement to bid for in excess of £300,000 in funding for sectional timing.

  • Wednesday 20 February
  • Blog
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When I was a lad and first getting into horseracing – longer ago than I care to remember – the sport was the go-to one for anyone intrigued by numbers and analysis.

Cricket and athletics arguably competed with it, but nothing else. The level of data and scrutiny in football and Formula One, for instance, was almost non-existent.

Horseracing had form figures, differing distances, goings and tracks, something resembling statistics relating to trainers and jockeys, and, perhaps most importantly of all, an advanced system of rating the horses themselves.

Far from putting me off, it seemed fascinating and alluring. If you really wanted to dig deep, you could find out about things like times, pedigrees and the apparent effect of the draw.

Ultimately – though only when I was old enough, of course… – I turned my interpretation of all of those elements into something like a betting strategy. Odds, are numbers themselves, of course.

Fast forward a few decades, and surprisingly little has changed in horseracing. The development of data and its promotion has been remarkably limited for a sport with so much potential in this area. You do not have to be a geek to be intrigued by such things, or to feel disappointed with how little has been done.

Meanwhile, data provision and data analysis in other sports, not least football, have exploded. Expected goals, possession figures, controlled entries to the opposition 22, short game, long game: you name it, it is being looked at, and not just by geeks, but by pundits and presenters. It is not assumed that such things will turn off the viewer: quite the opposite.

I blame horseracing’s surrendering of its status on two main parties: those who have been running the sport, and those who have been writing and broadcasting about it.

Inaction, and worse, by the former over the years led us to a situation whereby it became apparent that a lot of the data the sport was already relying upon could not be trusted. Race distances were way out in some cases (it transpired that the Grand National, no less, had been run over completely the wrong trip), as were some official times.

At the same time, an apathetic media more interested in sourcing glib soundbites from the sport’s participants and avoiding rocking any boats steadily dumbed down just when it should have been dumbing up.

There have been exceptions, fortunately. At The Races has been at the forefront of displaying and contextualising sectional times in recent years, both on-screen and on this website. Industry leaders Total Performance Data not only provide those but striding data, also.

The sport’s authorities have been stirred into action more recently, including by the prompting of the Horseracing Bettors Forum, of which I was formerly Chair. Wind operations are now declared, those race distances were belatedly re-measured and amendments to them must be publicised, and the accuracy of official going reports is being looked into, to name but three.

Credit needs to go where it is due in officialdom, too. Many at the British Horseracing Authority have been supportive of data initiatives of late, and some have been making the running in this area.

While sectional timing has not been at the top of the list of desires of British horseracing punters in surveys conducted by HBF, they have always been close up and have been making ground lately.

It is in that context that I welcome greatly comments made to me by Nick Rust, CEO of the BHA, at Wetherby yesterday.

He revealed exclusively that British racing has come together under the tripartite agreement to bid for in excess of £300,000 in funding for sectional timing, to support its further development and to ensure that acceptable standards are met. His belief was that the bid would be approved this year.

He also added that the BHA is continuing to look at data initiatives to increase interest in, and understanding of, the sport, including the possibility of a trial of race-day weighing of racehorses, such as at one of the all-weather tracks.

There will be those who oppose both sectionals and weighing. It may not be for them, but they are free to ignore the data produced, much like I ignore the vast majority of those glib soundbites mentioned earlier.

Horseracing as a sport, and the betting on it, needs to do more to appeal to data-savvy and tech-savvy individuals who are often now walking straight past on their way to other forms of entertainment.

The BHA is making a lot of the right noises now under its current CEO. I just hope it is not too little, too late.

The presence of Total Performance Data should ensure that we get sectional and striding figures from Lingfield Park on Friday, so that even if you do not have any strong opinions beforehand you should be able to form some after the event, to carry forward to the horses’ next runs.

A couple to consider are MOTAJAASID in the sunracing.co.uk Handicap at 3:00 and CRACKER FACTORY in the Play 4 To Score At Betway Handicap at 4:40.

The former is the least exposed runner in a field of eight, having won at Wolverhampton and Southwell last year, which was his first campaign. The slight break he has had since a disappointing run on the latter course just before Christmas could be in his favour, while he gets weight off everything else in a field which includes a couple likely to ensure an honest pace.

The latter is thrown in if transferring his form from hurdles, in which sphere he has a BHA rating of 139 compared to the 67 he runs off here. While things do not always work out like that, Cracker Factory has potential after just four runs on the level and his trainer, Alan King, is a dab hand with these types.

Sectional Spotlight
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