Monday, 28 February 2011

Equine Flow Psychology I

When I first started analysing sectionals from the US 15 years ago, I found the task tremendously interesting. It felt like I was learning things about racing that few people in Britain knew or understood.

I used to listen to experts on television here describe front-running winners as having "done it the hard way". Nowadays, the same performances would be termed "benefiting from an easy lead".

But when races had featured duels early on, I would come across horses who had run six furlongs like this:

:22     :45     1:12

and next time, in far less contentious situations, they would cover the same course and distance like this:

:23     :46     1:10

It happened time and again. There were plenty of examples. Nothing had changed about the horse between its two races apart from the way it ran the race.

If you read any part of my series Pace: the final frontier, you will know exactly what is happening here. (And, though I did not recognise it at the time, the whole concept was part of the orthodoxy of US racing analysis.)

By covering the opening quarter-mile a second slower, a horse could run two seconds faster for the full race distance. This was an astonishing difference. At once, it opened my eyes to the power of pace.

Had a horse like this been assessed by traditional methods of doing ratings in Britain and Ireland, handicappers would have it improving by the best part of 30lb!

As you can imagine, the prospect of being able to actually project similar amounts of improvement made me feel as if I could turn base metal into punting gold.

So, I got to work and calculated "too fast" opening quarters for every course and distance which was televised in the UK. I intended to back horses who had conformed to this idea and watch the profits come in.

Of course, it didn't happen. It was only Fool's Gold that I had discovered. I should have realised that someone else would have got there first.

I did find some nice winners, mind. One night at the Fair Grounds, I nailed a 37-1 winner that seemed so obvious it was untrue. But there were plenty of horses who ran disappointingly, and there was something worse still.

When I looked at their performances as a group, about 50% had indeed run faster times than before. But by only three or four lengths - not enough to turn dismal losses into anything approaching wins.

About half the number or 25% of the sample - including my 37-1 winner - had jumped up considerably, just as I expected. Okay, usually the payoffs were not great because many were dropping in class.

But 25% had not even run a faster time. Not by a fifth of a second. These horses simply had to run faster, according to my fundamental rule of pace.

I was shocked. And when I looked at the individual cases, I was more confused still.

A lot of these horses were front runners who ran hard early to set up a lead, then tired badly in the straight and were caught in the final furlong. Next time, their jockeys did indeed try to ration their speed and run the opening quarter-mile more steadily, but they seemed to tire in exactly the same fashion and did not improve their times.

Like any bad scientist, I decided to disregard these horses from my sample. Instead, I proceeded to work out an equation which linked the final time of a horse to the way it had run each quarter-mile.

It pleased me greatly that this seemed to work pretty well. But still there were horses who did not obey the "rules".

I rationalised that many of these horses were probably unsound or had been treated with illicit medications. I was probably right, but it did not remove the nagging doubt from my mind.

Something was happening that I did not understand. My new-found "genius" was flawed.

It was then that I read James Gleick's superb book Chaos: Making A New Science (Viking Penguin). After only 50 pages, I went back to my data and began to look at it in a whole new way...