Sectional Spotlight

In part one of his Royal Ascot review, sectional timing expert Simon Rowlands evaluates the Britannia Handicap, the St James’s Palace Stakes, the Gold Cup and the Hardwicke Stakes.

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We will all have our personal highlights and lowlights of Royal Ascot 2019, not all of them, by any means, solely connected to betting. Amid the downpours, and even some sunshine, there were elite performances from humans and horses alike.

I, for one, will not forget in a hurry “Frankie Day” on Thursday, when Dettori appeared capable of walking on water and layers of his fifth mount Turgenev, after the previous four had won, stared costly defeat in the face until the colt was caught close home.

Dettori’s ride on Turgenev prompted some interesting discussion, with racing analyst Chris Dixon suggesting on the other channel that Dettori had done a bit too much too soon. This, in turn, prompted some criticism of Dixon on social media, including of the depressingly predictable and demonstrably bogus “how many winners have you ridden?” kind.

The answer is, I believe, “none”, but it matters not one bit. You do not need to be a Michelin-starred chef to appreciate a meal, and you do not need to have ridden to be able to critique a ride. But you do need to understand evidence, and the evidence in this case backs up Dixon’s remarks.

Royal Ascot 2019 was the occasion on which sectional timings finally came into the mainstream there, with figures provided for each of the races and now available as a PDF download to the bottom right in the Results Section on this site. There were a few teething problems on Tuesday, but less so thereafter.

Those sectional times have Turgenev running 13.73s for the final furlong, which means a finishing speed of 92.4% of the horse’s overall race speed, where par (derived from previous TurfTrax data at the course among other sources) is 96.0%.

Given the horse’s overall time, he ran about three lengths slower than optimum in that final furlong, while the winner Biometric ran a perfect split of 13.19s (96.0%). That made the difference between winning and losing, at least in theory (and that theory has been tried and tested for over 20 years now).

The crucial point which seems to get lost in all of this is that none of us – not even Dettori – can know in advance what overall time a horse will end up running, and therefore the benchmarks a horse should hit in order that its energy will best be rationed.

That is the challenge, and it is a challenge that Dettori got spectacularly right for most of the week, and, indeed, has got spectacularly right for most of the past 30-odd years.

To say “Turgenev did a bit too much too soon” is not so much a criticism as an observation, and, in this instance, it is an observation which is backed up by evidence and a robust methodology.

We can look in more detail at a handful of the more interesting older-horse races over the five days from a sectionals point of view, using the same evidence and robust methodology.

Remember that a lot can be learnt about a race, and the horses within that race, simply by calculating finishing speed %s and comparing them with those long-established benchmarks.

St James's Palace Stakes sectionals

Visuals tell you that the St James’s Palace Stakes was falsely-run, but are unlikely to quantify to exactly what degree. The early pace was reasonable, but there was a very soft mid-section, including from 4f out to 3f out where the field lost almost seven lengths to par.

Circus Maximus was best placed soon after, along with Fox Champion, while King of Comedy was one of the worst placed. King of Comedy’s finishing effort, including last-three sections all comfortably under 12.0s, has him best in the race by some way. Too Darn Hot, Skardu and Shaman should all have finished closer, the first-named a bit ahead of the winner in theory.

Gold Cup sectionals

The Gold Cup on Thursday was another falsely-run race, and every runner completed quicker than par. It is possible to wonder “what might have been?” with Cross Counter, had he been kept closer in touch, but sectional upgrading suggests he would have been second rather than have beaten Stradivarius.

The two recorded identical splits 6f out to 5f out, Cross Counter was marginally quicker in each of the next three sections, but Stradivarius was 0.09s (just over half a length) superior in each of the last 2f. Rivals, and some punters, are still trying to find a chink in Stradivarius’s armour: they failed once again.

Harwicke Stakes sectionals

On rapidly drying ground, the Hardwicke Stakes on Saturday was another falsely-run race, in which the Czech-trained Nagano Gold appeared to be unlucky, getting into a poor position through being hampered by Masar at the start and powering home without quite getting to Defoe.

Sectional analysis largely confirms this impression, but there is a caveat. The pace mid-race in the Hardwicke was so slow – including a pedestrian 13.40s fifth furlong – that the overall race time suffered significantly.

What is tested in such circumstances is at least as much the ability to quicken as ability itself. Nagano Gold proved very good at the former – no horse, not even Group 1 sprinters – ran faster than his 34.79s for the final 3f on the day and was “unlucky”.

But that sectional rating (the base timefigure plus the upgrade resulting from that finishing speed) suggests he should not necessarily be regarded as superior in the wider scheme of things to Defoe, who had posted a 123 sectional rating when winning at Epsom. Sectional upgrading methodology was designed with these sorts of scenarios in mind.

Contrary to the impression perhaps created by the above, the majority of races at Royal Ascot 2019 went to the “right” horse. But a few did not, and a greater number involved horses who ran significantly better than the result. This is so much easier to establish now that sectionals are put on a plate.

*The second of these ATR Sectional Spotlight Specials will follow on Tuesday and will look exclusively at the two-year-old races from Royal Ascot 2019.

Sectional Spotlight
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