Friday, 18 February 2011

Pace: the final frontier - Q&A

As we enter lower orbit in Pace Wars, your questions answered.

R Hills is God says..
Q: I saw Paul Struthers [BHA Head of Communications] on RUK. He claimed we [British racing] can't afford sectional timings or the weighing of horses. I think its up to you to put the case that we can't afford NOT to have them. 

A: Glenn, I too saw that interview during an excellent broadcast on Racing UK. The BHA clearly haven't a clue how important sectionals are, not least in selling British racing to the US. 

Colin says...

Q: Can I ask you to progress quite slowly? I've always had problems with understanding sectional times.
A: Thanks for hanging tough, Colin. I certainly appreciate your request. I'll do my best to comply. 

Robert says...
Q: Enjoying the blog so far, I'm having a stab at your question.

The reason for the shape of the sectional times at Churchill is mainly the surface. Early speed is king in dirt races because it's hard to quicken, and any lost momentum due to trouble is magnified.
Average US turf sectionals would show a completely different shape; they should be a lot nearer even pace and maybe even skewed towards a faster last two furlongs. 

It is a lot easier to quicken on turf than dirt, and lost momentum doesn't take as much out of a horse; it's more important for a jockey to get his horse relaxed and save energy for the finish. 
Soft ground and synthetic surfaces would change the shape again.

A: There are other reasons, Robert, as I will outline in the next blog. But you absolutely nailed one of the most central. Superbly expressed, too.

horseracingfan says...
Q: Could it be that a horse has to go around two sharp bends and has to slow down to negotiate them, therefore making it difficult to maintain an even pace?

A: Thanks very much for your answer, hrf. It is true that bends do have a significant impact in slowing down horses, particularly in the US. That would not explain why the final, straight two-furlong sectional was the slowest, however. Additionally, there is only bend taken in six-furlong races at Churchill. 

King Cyclops says...
Q: I am not sure about the application of sectional times to British racing. Do you think they would be meaningful here? There are such huge variations in layout, pace and going (even on the sand tracks).

A: Thanks for responding, King. The only problem with sectionals in Britain is getting recorded data. 

With a sufficient sample size, there is no problem applying them to the different conditions you outline. While US tracks are certainly more homogeneous, there are still differences between them for which we need to be allow, caused by variable run-up distances before the timing starts. 
Furthermore, even at a single meeting we need to make allowance for wind changes, track maintenance and rain.

FormPicks says...
Q: What is the point of sectional times if the running rail is moved three yards then an apparent two-furlong furlong bend is now 10 yards less or approx half a second quicker? We even have the situation in the UK where the Oaks is generally run over a longer distance then the Derby!

A: You have answered your own question, FP. To make allowance for different features - such as the rail movement you mention - we only have to make the kind of simple compensation you have worked out. 

Andy Mear says...
Q: Your phrase "energy use" is key. I think that's the fundamental reason why horses are suited to particular tracks. 

Do you believe a horse which has achieved near-perfect sectionals would be capable of doing so in subsequent runs?
Do near-perfect sectionals have as much to do with luck-in-running as ability?
A: Andy, you have brought up two fundamental points which I will be tackling in stand-alone blogs at the end of the primer. 

First, congratulations on your point about track profiling. It isn't exclusively the reason why horses become course specialists, but it has a lot to do with it. 
Cruelly, I am going to make you think some more about your second question, but here are my clues. Forget the narrow idea regarding second run off a layoff, but what might be a general reason for the tendency of some horses to "bounce"? To help, I will give you the phrase "regression to the mean". 
I prefer the term "randomness" to luck, but you are well on the way to the answer.