A King George VI Chase winner at Kempton by 21 lengths would usually be celebrated as one of the sport’s greats, especially if the horse in question was following up a win in the race from 12 months earlier.
That is what Clan des Obeaux achieved in this year’s Boxing Day highlight, his margin increased many times from the one and a half lengths by which he beat Thistlecrack in 2018 and surpassed in the modern era only by Kauto Star’s “distancing” of his rivals (in reality, about 36 lengths) in 2009.
How, then, is it that such a monumental performance has left many onlookers relatively unmoved?
The theory is that he was the only horse who truly gave his running, and that the placed horses – Cyrname and Footpad – failed to stay.
In days gone by, that might have been something that was discussed until the cows came home, or at least until Lostintranslation finally did. In the age of sectionals, there is actually little room for argument.
It is possible that Clan des Obeaux ran a new personal best, but what is beyond doubt is that it was much less a question of him finishing quickly than it was of his main rivals stopping dramatically.
The best way I know of to measure this is through a horse’s finishing speed, expressed as a % of its speed for the race overall: the conditions and the ability the horses showed on the day are implied in the times they end up running.
We now have a large body of evidence to show how quickly a horse will finish if it is running efficiently, and what it means when they depart significantly from that.
The par finishing speed for a three-mile chase at Kempton is around 98.5% from three out (550 yards from the finish: thank you, Google Earth), from two out (356 yards) it is around 97.0%, and from the last (a mere 152 yards) it is around 94.0%. Having three fences so late in the race keeps those figures down.
This is how the finishers in this year’s Ladbrokes-sponsored event completed.
Those finishing speed %s for Clan des Obeaux are indeed faster than par, especially from two out and up the run-in, but are overshadowed by those pedestrian figures for Cyrname and Footpad in particular.
By way of comparison, not a single chase winner in the entire Total Performance Data Sectional Archive has run from 3f out in less than 93% of its overall race speed. Figures in the 80s are funereal and usually reserved for stragglers on courses with far more testing finishes than Kempton’s.
Given the horses and the circumstances we are talking about, the visuals, and the lack of anything to suggest Cyrname and Footpad went amiss, that reads very much to me like a deficiency of stamina on their part.
The overall time of the King George was good compared to the Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices’ Chase earlier on the card, but the issue there was the opposite one of the principals finishing a good deal faster than par: the first two, Slate House and Black Op, produced finishing speeds of 104.2% and 103.4% respectively.
Just how the King George panned out from pillar to post, and not just late on, can be established by comparing the finishers’ splits with those of fast-time winners of the race in recent years.
The theory is that fast times (compared to what might be expected given the quality of the horses in question) arise from running efficiently. By recalibrating those benchmarks to the overall winning time of this year’s King George, we can see how much ahead or behind par the runners were at various stages.
That extraordinary finish was not as a result of a markedly inefficient pace before that. Far from going too fast – something which can result in pedestrian finishes – the runners were just behind par for most of the three miles.
Cyrname edged ahead of par just before halfway, having been restrained more than usual, but by a mere half a length. The pace backed off a bit again thereafter, until the first three closed in on par again going to three out.
At that stage, there was only about a length and a half in it between the three of them, though Clan des Obeaux was by now clearly going best. Then, everything changed.
I would rate Clan des Obeaux an up-to-scratch King George winner, but sectional upgrading suggests that he was nowhere near as superior to his rivals as the margins might make you believe.
Still, while jumping may be “the name of the game” in one respect, “staying” is another crucial element where staying chases are the game in question. Clan des Obeaux did both with aplomb, while his rivals did not. That is their problem, not his, after all.