Hands up if you thought the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday, in which Paisley Parkgained a last-gasp victory over the young pretender Thyme Hill, was a thrilling spectacle and encapsulated much of what is good about the jumps game.
Keep your hands up if, like me, you imagined that the race had been run to suit a horse with bottomless stamina over another with greater pace, not least because that was what seemed likely beforehand. If so, join me in detention later.
There are many things that pure numbers cannot capture, or have difficulty in capturing, but pace is not one of them. Visual impressions are all well and good, but no-one has yet been born who can tell the precise difference between a furlong run in 12.0s and 11.8s (though Steve Cauthen came pretty close).
Small fluctuations in pace can make the difference between winning and losing in the fine-margin world of flat racing, though rather bigger ones are usually required over jumps. Usually.
The way to measure time differentials, precisely and in a manner that allows the results to be analysed, is by using a stopwatch or similar. According to Wikipedia, the stopwatch – or chronograph – was invented over 200 years ago.
The only excuse not to be using one these days is when the figures are put on a plate for you by a trustworthy source, which fortunately is the case with the Long Walk Hurdle.
Sectional times exist for Ascot jump races in the Results Section on this site, courtesy of Total Performance Data. The only important thing missing is the wider context of how those times compare to par, which will follow shortly.
Until then, the following are the splits (and cumulative splits) for the first three in Saturday’s race along with some provisional pars in order to achieve an overall time of 376.0s under the prevailing conditions.
It can be seen that the trio were around 4.0s (approaching 20 lengths) behind par after a mile, that they gained a few lengths in the largely downhill section between 12f out and 8f out, and continued to close the gap until well into the straight, including an especially fast split from 4f out to 2f out, which is where Paisley Park was most in trouble.
Thereafter, Thyme Hill and Roksana did not stop – indeed, they were slightly quicker than par in the last 2f – but Paisley Park took off, running the penultimate 1f about two lengths quicker than par and the final one nearly twice as fast. His was the fastest last 2f (30.10s) by a hurdle winner across the two days.
The all-important finishing speed %s – the speed of a horse in the last half mile of a jumps race compared to its average speed for the race overall – come out at 103.4% for Paisley Park, 102.9% for Thyme Hill and 103.0% for Roksana, where par is just below 100%.
Thyme Hill had managed to beat Paisley Park at Newbury receiving 3 lb, on good to soft going and in a race where the finishing speeds were over 110%, but not this time, on a course with a stiffer finish, at level weights, on heavy going and in a race in which an injection of speed nearly proved decisive again.
But it was close: close enough to think that a tweak to the course, the going, the race distance, or, not least, the pace, could still produce a different outcome.
This may not be a vintage era for staying hurdlers, but it could just be turning into a vintage season for staying hurdle races. Seconds out, round three, could be the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January.
Sectional analysis is significantly more difficult in Ireland, where promised-for official splits have never materialised and race and sectional distances sometimes involve a degree of guesswork.
Nonetheless, it can be very much worth the effort, such as when it identified just what a good prospect Sir Gerhard was on his debut at Down Royal, a performance covered in an earlier Sectional Spotlight.
The Gordon Elliott-trained five-year-old was in action again last Friday, at Navan in the listed “Future Champions” bumper. He won, and he won well enough to be trimmed further to around 5/2 for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in March.
To be honest, I was not initially bowled over by his effort, getting 3 lb from Letsbeclearaboutit and beating that one by four and a half lengths, for all that the runner-up went into the race with credible claims to be considered the second-best bumper horse around.
The sectionals and overall times only partly dismiss those reservations, as the following figures from the hurdles – four of them at the longer distance of two and a half miles – and his bumper show.
The “form” and “time” figures are the ratings based on the results and the overall times respectively, and are usually closely aligned if a race has been well-run (so that the overall time closely reflects a horse’s achievements in form terms). The splits are for the winners themselves.
But he was not especially fast compared to the 16f hurdle winner,Percy Warner, who ran only 3.4s slower overall and 0.7s (around three lengths) slower from the third-last, or where the third-last would be. Remember that hurdles slow down horses by in the region of 0.6s per flight jumped.
After reflection, it struck me that the obvious conclusion is probably the correct one (Occam’s Razor, if you like): namely, that Sir Gerhard probably remains a fine prospect but that Percy Warner and the horse he beat by just three quarters of a length,Flanking Maneuver (who conceded him 3 lb), are also probably a good deal better than generally appreciated.
How else could they run faster overall and slightly faster late, allowing for the presence or absence of hurdles, than a horse who had already achieved the championship level of form that Sir Gerhard had?
Flanking Maneuver is in at Leopardstown next Tuesday, so we may not need to wait long to find out how this particular theory measures up against reality!
There will be a special ATR Sectional Spotlight reviewing the main Boxing Day action the day after it has taken place.