We are at last in the week that leads up to The Greatest Race In The World, or one of horseracing’s most puzzling anomalies, depending on your preference.
The Investec-sponsored Derby at Epsom on Saturday no longer stops a nation – Parliament used to adjourn for it back in the day – but it is still the race that got many of us hooked on the sport more years ago than we care to remember. And it is still the race above all others that I, for one, hate to miss.
The Derby represents a unique test of a three-year-old thoroughbred, with its twists and turns and ups and downs, not least regarding the demands it makes on stamina for young horses who might not have tried as far as 12f previously.
Predicting which horse will cope best is not easy but we do have more to guide us than was once the case, including striding analytics.
As a reminder, the speed at which a horse strides – its strides per second or “cadence” – will limit how far it is likely to stay. Sprinters need to be fast striders, stayers need to relax, and Derby horses tend to be somewhere in between (if a bit more like the latter than the former).
Such insights have arisen from the striding figures provided by Total Performance Data, to be found for selected racecourses in the Results Section on this site, as well as from advanced video analysis of performances at other tracks.
For instance, we can ascertain, with a bit of effort, the maximum and minimum stride frequency in the closing stages of recent winners of the great race and the same in recent races for the main candidates on Saturday.
The below graph plots those maximum and minimum figures for the last five winners of The Derby, identified by name, and 10 of Saturday’s intended runners (plus Too Darn Hot, for illustration), numbered and identified in the “key” of the following table.
Masar was a bit of a freak, in that he strode like an out-and-out stayer but had already shown very smart form at a mile. The other four Derby winners cluster in the 2.30 to 2.36 maximum and 2.24 to 2.30 minimum region.
Saturday’s hopefuls are spread all over the place (as judged by their average maximum/minimum in the closing stages of all their races this year).
In order to calculate which is most (or least) typical of a Derby winner, we need to use some basic trigonometry and a simplified version of a statistical process known as “nearest-neighbour analysis”.
The shortest summed distance between a candidate’s position and those of the specified five Derby winners on this two-dimensional plane makes a horse most typical, the longest makes him least.
The conclusion is that Telecaster (2.33 max/2.21 min), Circus Maximus, Madhmoon and Cape of Good Hope are the “best fits”, while Too Darn Hot – data point 11 on the earlier graph – has been included to illustrate just how unsuitable he would have been for the test at hand had connections chosen that path (he strides like a miler but arguably very nearly got 10.45f at York).
I would be less discouraged by those horses with slower strides who most closely resemble last year’s winner Masar. The implication is that they may have untapped stamina and improve on what they have done at shorter distances to this stage.
Broome looks to have little speed but has already put up smart efforts (eventually) given soft ground and a searching pace at 10f. Surfman has a long and loping stride and took too long to get going when held up in the Dante at York last time.
A horse’s speed at any given point is a function of its stride length and its stride frequency, while its ability to sustain speed over a distance (aka “stamina”) will be affected by the latter more than the former.
The above striding analytics effectively attempt to identify a horse’s suitability to the test of The Derby, but there is more to winning the race than that. You could doubtless find an individual whose striding signature is perfect for 12f at Epsom but who is far too slow to win at the top level.
Winning The Derby will require both suitability and ability. The latter is better identified through sectionals, with overall times (put in their proper context) adjusted for the efficiency or inefficiency that gave rise to them.
Contrary to the impression sometimes given, this process of “sectional upgrading” has existed, with a few refinements, for around 20 years now.
The following are my best sectional ratings for those same main contenders going into Saturday’s race.
There is no Shergar-like superstar in the race that we know of, yet, but Telecaster(118+2 sectional upgrade at York, where he ran 35.57s for the last 3f) and Sir Dragonet (116+3 at Chester, 25.66s last 2f) are fairly close to the usual standard, while Broome and Madhmoon are not far behind them.
The Derby is never dull, and it will be fascinating to see how the various strengths and weaknesses play out at Epsom shortly after 4:30 on Saturday.