Thursday, 17 February 2011

Pace: the final frontier III

Thanks very much for all your comments. Such generosity says a lot about your attitude to this great game of ours.

Here is part III of Pace Wars, as my good friend thedarkknight has termed it. We finished the last part by outlining how we account for conditions in assessing times. Now it is time to look at the impact of the track.

Last time, I promised to discuss different surfaces like turf and synthetics. But that has to wait, as I want to develop the ideas in this series at a suitable rate. (Given the title, it would be ironic if I went off too fast.)

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4.2 Surface differences and their implications for pace

The impact of different types of going on race times and sectionals is one thing, but what about the effect of the track's layout and relief?

We don't have to know exactly how much each undulation or bend affects the times which horses run. Such an exercise would be extremely daunting where Epsom racecourse were concerned, for instance.

Instead, we can use a large sample of times over every particular course and distance to infer the combined effect of all features. We know - both from experience and theory - what horses of particular merit should be able to run on a straight, flat, featureless track, and we can compare this expectation with the times they actually do run over each course and distance.

Allowing for error in the mathematical manipulation of this data, the resulting standard (UK and Ireland) or par* (US) time provides an excellent benchmark with which to interpret the time value of future races.

(*Strictly speaking, a par time is more usually applied to the expectation for a particular class level over a given course and distance. It is used more flexibly here.)

4.3 The deeper impact of different tracks

It is not difficult to understand that a track with an uphill finish is more demanding than a flat one. Its standard times will reflect this.

But the rellief and layout of a track is not only evident from the final times of horses, but more particularly from their sectionals. The effects of bends and hills will be instantly apparent from sectional times.

In the same way that we can use data to infer standard times for each course and distance, we can go deeper and develop an expectation of how standard time is optimally achieved there.

This is a more sophisticated task of data analysis. But it is equally within our grasp. And the resulting set of standard sectionals enable us to see far deeper into the equine athlete than many will ever delve.

4.4 Towards the job of track profiling

Let's return to first principles for a second. Remember I referred to the so-called general axiom of pace in the first part of this series? I am now going to express it more formally, at the same time mindful not to become mired in scientific language.

Optimal time is most commonly achieved when sectional times show the least amount of variance.

To rephrase: the most efficient way from A to B is at even tempo. As I stated clearly, however, this is only a general axiom. It does not hold for every horse, every track or every distance. Far from it.

The physical relationship between pace and energy use is fundamental to this axiom. To be rigorous, we might define it as having a perfect application only on a straight track of infinite length and zero undulation. I'll tell you why all three of those considerations are important to the definition in due course.

On such a hypothetical track - and assuming the horse had reached its cruising speed before the timer even starts - the standard sectionals for any given subdivision of the track will be equal to ideal pace for that distance.

(Of course, on the infinitely-long track I stipulated, not only could the horse never reach the end, but its ideal pace in attempting to do so would therefore be infinitely slow, meaning it would remain at the start. This is just one reason why the British Horseracing Authority would never sanction the construction of such a facility - imagine the impact on betting turnover.)

But what about real-life tracks? What can standard sectionals tell us about those? The answer is profound.

4.5 Differentiating between ideal pace and average pace

You will be pleased that we are soon departing from the abstract. Note that many examples during this series are taken from US racing on dirt, only because of the availability of data. I am always mindful that any concepts extracted can be applied universally, and in particular to European turf racing.

Okay, consider the sectional times drawn from a sample of $10,000 claiming races run on the main track at Churchill Downs between 2001 and 2003.

(These are taken from my spreadsheets; you might be able to guess they were barren years for me socially.)

22.2     45.8     1:10.8

These are the average splits that a winner of average ability for the class achieved during that period.

In other words, aided by a running start before the timer began, your common-or-garden $10,000 claiming-race winner would run 22.2 seconds for the first two furlongs, reach the half-mile pole in 45.8 seconds and stop the clock in 1:10.8 after six furlongs.

Let's break those down into sectional times for each individual quarter-mile:

22.2     23.6     25.0

What in the world was going on out there? These aren't anything like equal times; this cannot be ideal pace.

If I showed these splits to someone who had only ever seen British racing and asked them to guess the layout of Churchill Downs, they might infer it had a steep, uphill finish.

Incidentally, if you think it absurd that anyone would be surprised at the layout of a US track, consider the following expression of a presenter on the multi-award winning At The Races channel on Sky 415.

"My first impression is that Belmont Park is extremely flat," said the individual. (Such banality is easy to blurt out on on live television; I have done it numerous times myself. My policy being to avoid personal criticism of others where possible, this is included to highlight the sometimes parochial attitude to racing circuits evident around the world.)

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That's plenty to be getting on with for now. If you are following this series, I am going to leave you with some mental homework. I will not expect it handed in first thing in the morning and there will be absolutely no detention.

What is the reason for the shape of those sectional times from Churchill Downs?

Strictly for your enjoyment, here are three wrong answers:

1) US jockeys cannot judge the pace like "our boys". They go off too fast. British and Irish jockeys are the best in the world.

2) These beat-up, drug-fuelled donkeys can't quicken. Drilling them into the ground is the only way.

3) It is clear that the track is measured incorrectly. The last sectional must be more than two furlongs.

Given you have the motivation to actually read this post, I know you would never have come up with these responses. But they have actually been given to me in another setting, believe it or not.

Best regards and thanks for reading!