Sectional Spotlight

In his latest update, sectional timing expert Simon Rowlands tackles some of the misconceptions about striding data.

  • Wednesday 31 July
  • Blog
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Much has been written and said about sectionals in the last week or two, following the announcement of Levy Board funding for it in Britain over the next three years, and I do not intend adding a lot to it this week.

You either “get” sectionals, or you do not. One of the challenges in the years ahead is for the former group to help the latter group to appreciate the insight and opportunities that sectionals provide. That applies to the open-minded: there may not be much point in trying to talk round those who are not.

One spin-off of sectional provision so far has been striding data, which has been a feature of the Total Performance Data service in the Results Section of this site from 2017 on.

There has been a significant amount of interest in striding in that time, not least from professionals, but there have also been a few misconceptions, which I will try to tackle here.

In basic terms, the speed a horse runs at is a product of its stride frequency (also known as “cadence”) and its stride length.

If, say, a horse has a stride length of 8 yards (24 feet: a close-to-average figure) and turns over that stride 2.5 times a second, it follows that it will cover 20 yards in that second, and that it will run a furlong (220 yards) in 11.00s if it maintains that.

Stride length and cadence are limited by a horse’s physiology – which will in turn be determined to some degree by genetics – and by extraneous physical factors, including surface speed, course topography and the distance over which a horse is asked to run.

It is possible to determine cadence from video analysis, with some effort, and if you want to establish stride length then you must also know a horse’s speed – that is, its sectionals – as stride length is distance travelled divided by strides taken.

What became clear at an early stage is that a horse’s stride length is heavily affected by those extraneous factors, but its cadence is much less so. That makes the latter an easier and more immediately rewarding field of enquiry.

The vast majority of long-striding horses prove to be good horses – the two-year-old Visinari (over 28 feet on his debut) may or may not prove to be a costly exception – but long-striding horses will stride much shorter if the ground is soft, or if the course is uphill or round a bend.

Besides, we have a better way of gauging a horse’s ability, even at an early stage of its development, and that is through sectionals and times themselves.

What cadence tells us most of all is how far a horse is likely to carry its ability, and in that they can sometimes offer very different interpretations to those arrived at by other means.

Striding quickly – such as above 2.50 strides/second – is necessary (with just a few exceptions) for a horse to sprint well but is unsustainable for long. Stayers need to “switch off” for a proportion of their races or they will fatigue before the end.

A couple of recent high-profile cases, written about on these pages, are Too Darn Hot – as high as 2.50 strides/second as a two-year-old, which called seriously into doubt his ability to stay beyond a mile, let alone the 12f trip of The Derby, for which he was favourite over the winter – and Sangarius.

The latter was identified as likely to excel at middle-distances from his slow (and long) striding as early as on his debut, at a time when his sire Kingman was making headlines for producing a speedball in Calyx.

Striding measures

Here are a few other headline findings:

•    Sea The Stars, at 28.6 feet, has the longest stride I have personally measured, but, crucially, he was not only very good but achieved it when running downhill on quite quick ground and in the penultimate furlong of a Derby that had been steadily-run early on. I have Frankel peaking at 27.3 feet, but he strode more quickly.

•    Winx had the fastest cadence I have manually measured (2.61 strides/second, 2017 Warwick Stakes) for any horse outside Breeze-Up Sales, where horses tend to stride very quickly, and 5f races, but she could also “switch off” at as low as 2.30 strides/second.

•    Stride length is NOT a meaningful predictor of stamina (something I have heard stated as fact several times), as average stride length is uniform across all distances when controlled for other factors, see table below.

•    However, stride length is about 0.5 feet longer on average on turf (all goings) than on the variety of all-weather surfaces, all other things being equal.

•    According to earlier research of mine, two-year-olds stride fractionally shorter (1 or 2 inches) than mature horses, presumably due to exerting slightly less power, though that adds up over the course of a race (to in the region of two to three lengths for a 6f contest).

•    Again, according to earlier research of mine, the fibresand surface at Southwell sees in-form horses showing a higher maximum cadence and for that peak cadence to have been earlier in the race than at other all-weather tracks. This may be due to the need to gain purchase, in order to get up to full speed quickly, on what is a deeper surface.

•    A specific horse’s cadence varies little over time and by circumstance. A study of all TPD figures for 2017 and 2018 (nearly 20,000 records) showed that peak cadence for horses appearing more than twice in that study varied by less than 0.04 strides/second, plus or minus, in over two-thirds of the cases. For instance, a horse peaking at 2.40 strides/second can be expected to stride at between 2.36 and 2.44 on another, even when circumstances are different.

Stride frequency and stride length are just two useful by-products of hi-tech (and low-tech) sectional timing.

Distance travelled and jumping efficiency are others, or at least potentially so. Sectionals themselves have many applications, over and above the obvious one of measuring the time it took a horse to get from A to B and not just from A to Zee.

Welcome to a Brave New World. What a shame it has taken so long to arrive!  

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