The acceptance of sectional-timing analysis in this once benighted country has come a long way of late.
Where, not so long ago, there was little quantitative appreciation after a race of how a horse got from A to B, nowadays broadcasters and print journalists refer to sectionals more than occasionally, even if it is only to observe “it will be interesting what the sectionals say”, before leaving it to others to do the graft.
One of the most obvious and easiest of applications, and therefore one that is much used, is the one-on-one comparison between races run over the same course and distance on the same day.
Stark differences can be highlighted in an immediate and intuitive fashion. For instance, did you know that while Simply The Betts and Cepage ran similar overall times at Cheltenham on Saturday the former was 15 to 20 lengths faster than the latter from the third-last, half a mile from home? Or that Stormy Ireland not only ran much faster overall than the other two-mile hurdle winners at Naas on Sunday but marginally faster in the closing stages, too?
Interesting, I hope you will agree. But what happens if one horse running faster sectionals than another simply means that the latter was running slowly? That happens more than occasionally, and any conclusion that the faster horse has “done well” in a wider context may be much mistaken.
To get a fuller context, you really need to know how fast a horse should have run against benchmarks which are adjusted for the circumstances which prevailed. You need sectional pars.
At The Races has been at the forefront of informing the horseracing public in this area since teaming up with Total Performance Data, the industry leaders in sectional and striding data.
Most notably, it has colour-coded the sectional aspect of its Results Section, with red sections indicating fast splits compared to par, blue indicating slow, and green, yellow and orange for the in between.
Occasionally, however, it has not been possible to come up with sectional pars, and that has been the case over jumps at Doncaster, until now. TPD figures became available there only recently, and Saturday’s big card was just the fifth for which individual horse figures were available.
Nonetheless, that is enough to come up with workable pars using a version of the methodology expounded in Sectional Timing: An Introduction by Timeform. The splits of any horse finishing in the first four and recording a good overall time compared to its apparent ability were used, and a degree of smoothing and estimation (no, not “cooking the books”) was thereafter applied.
This is what I came up with for the last-4f finishing speeds (speed in last 4f as a % of speed for race overall) at the track.
Those figures for hurdles are all lower than chases – that is, horses tend to finish slower compared to their average race speed in the former than the latter – and are even more pronounced for sectionals still later in the race.
The reasons for this are open to debate but probably include that there are seven fences in the last 7.5f at Doncaster and only three hurdles: the latter develop further out, such as on the long turn for home.
Be that as it may, the race finishing speeds for Saturday’s card can now be viewed in their fuller context.
The two standout races are those won by Ramses De Teillee, in which he ran his rivals into submission and finished pretty slowly himself, and by Lady Buttons, which was the opposite extreme of slow-slow-sprint.
Contrary to what was reported in some quarters, Lady Buttons did not finish more quickly in absolute terms than Logician did when winning the 2019 St Leger, but nor would you expect her to get anywhere near doing that. Her 13.20s then 13.72s for the last 2f (Logician 11.63s then 12.53s) is extremely fast in the circumstances.
Colour coding will be added to Doncaster jumps sectional results on attheraces.com shortly.
There was something remarkable about the win of the debutant Fiji at Lingfield on Friday, but you will have to look quite hard to figure out what it was.
It was not his red-hot closing sectionals – impressive though those were at the end of what had been a slowly-run race – and certainly not his overall time, which was modest, or his achievement in terms of bare form (Timeform had a performance figure of 90). It was not even that he touched 74/1 in running before mowing down rivals to win comfortably.
It was his outlandish change of leg speed in the penultimate furlong, which was so pronounced that I had to check that it was correct (it was).
Thanks to TPD we have a lot of evidence now about how horses stride and what that signifies about their strengths and weaknesses (but seldom enough hours in the day to get to the bottom of it!) .
Horses accelerate by increasing stride length, or increasing stride speed (otherwise known as “cadence”), or more often both. A study of the TPD archive (over 60,000 entries and counting) shows that for horses running a furlong 1.0s or more faster than the preceding one in the closing stages of a race, increasing stride length is just over three times as influential as is increasing cadence.
At the same time, however, the TPD archive shows that what Fiji did in increasing his cadence from 2.27 strides/second to 2.48 strides/second in the space of a furlong late in a race is rare. In fact, less than 1% of horses in the archive have managed that.
There is evidence that this trait is associated with superior ability – more research needed – as well as that a wide range between maximum and minimum striding denotes the same.
The ability to lob along then accelerate in short order is a valuable one in a racehorse. Winx (2.30 minimum, 2.55 and higher maximum) is Exhibit A in this area and Stradivarius (2.28, 2.45 and higher) could be regarded as Exhibit B.
Fiji is no Stradivarius, let alone a Winx, but his push-button acceleration, powered by that sharp increase in leg speed, should mean he has a weapon in his arsenal that few of his near-at-hand rivals possess.