Saturday, 19 February 2011

Pace: the final frontier IV

Note: A few minor tweaks have been made to the original version of this post to clarify some of the terms I am using to describe sectional times in this series.

This followed an extremely helpful suggestion by Glenn Alcoe in the original comments section. As this is now fully integrated in the revised post, I have deleted his comments only to save others reading them becoming confused.

In the next article, I will conclude with a clear definition of terms such as even pace, ideal pace and standard sectionals. 

Thanks for reading. 

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4.6 The influence of track layout on ideal pace

The question I left you at the end of part III was to explain the fractions for those Churchill Downs claimers over six furlongs. 

To refresh, the average individual sectionals for winners typical of the $10,000 level in 2001-3 were:

22.2      23.6      25.0

This pattern of deceleration, I remarked, was nothing like the way we have established that fast times are usually achieved. Most commonly, horses achieve optimal time by running at even pace, allowing for the physical features of a particular course and distance.

Over six furlongs at Churchill Downs, even pace for a winning time of 1:10.8 would be represented by quarter-mile fractions of:

23.6      23.6      23.6

But, after an average first two furlongs, a horse running its race in this fashion would find itself 1.4sec (23.6 - 22.2) behind the point where winners are usually running. According to the convention that a length is the equivalent of a fifth of a second, this time-lag would see it buried in the pack seven lengths behind.

In this position, the poor beast in question could be in between horses and being pelted with kickback. Doubtless, it would have to wait for room or have to be angled wide to make its run.

Either scenario is bad news: running wide on tight tracks involves serious loss of ground, but waiting for room, or being hampered, is even worse.

Any interruption to the momentum of a horse running evenly can be more costly than the extra effort required to stay out of trouble.

But, a jockey cannot afford to be too aggressive early. If too many of his rivals want the lead, the energy required of his mount to get to the front can easily become exhausting.

So, one definition of standard sectionals could be: the tempo which balances the extra energy spent by running uneven splits with the energy saved by having the run of the race.

To clarify: a horse running over six furlongs at Churchill Downs has to run fast enough to get a favourable tactical position, but not too fast so that it has nothing left for the drive.

And the way this is achieved most commonly is described by the standard sectionals for that course and distance.

These might be expressed generally for all horses - as standard times are in the UK - or specific to a class level - as par times usually are in the US.

Earlier in this exercise, for instance, I revealed that the standard sectionals for a $10,000 claiming race over six furlongs at Churchill Downs were:

22.2      23.6      25.0

which expressed as elapsed time is:

22.2      45.8      1:10.8

4.7 Profiling the track with standard sectionals

The process described above enables us to take a leap of understanding from that provided by final-time speed figures like those of Beyer and his associates in the US or Timeform in the UK. In addition to an objective measure of how fast a horse covered the distance of the race, we can now evaluate how it did so.

The importance of this consideration is captured by a popular aphorism among horseplayers in the US: it is not how fast they ran, it is how they ran fast.

Standard sectionals for a course and distance are calculated by considering a suitably large sample of horses who have achieved their final-time potential. 

In calculating the most common way they achieve fast times, we are said to profile the track.

In Europe, this exercise would be even more useful for horsemen. It may soon be apparent to a jockey at Churchill Downs that he needs to look sharp early, but what about the best tactical approach to running a mile and a half at Epsom or seven furlongs at Goodwood?

As this is a more complex task to learn from experience, a jockey or trainer with this information for every course and distance in Britain would have a huge tactical advantage.

4.8 Implications of different track surfaces

But the shape of the track is not the only consideration in establishing standard sectionals. Its surface arguably exerts just as much influence.

Returning to our Churchill Downs example, I am going to turn to the excellent answer given by my correspondent Robert in response to the question I left you last time:

"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," he wrote.

As Robert rightly says, the traditional dirt surface of the US tends to shift more under a horse's hoof than either grass tracks or synthetics like Polytrack or Tappeta.

As a result, we say that dirt surfaces generally "favour early speed" and "don't play towards acceleration". Whereas the opposite applies to turf and synthetics.

Expressed more technically, final-quarter velocities typically are not as high on dirt as other surfaces.

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Being mindful to heed your views to make this journey into pace steadily, I am going to stop there for now. The next part will discuss the influence of different track conditions - fast or slow.

And we will get to the most interesting factor of all - how ideal pace varies according to the distance of the race. This factor has profound implications for the subject of thoroughbred pace as a whole. You might want to give it some thought, if you have time.

Thanks for reading. Please leave any questions you may have, or any clarifications I may add, in the comments section underneath.