Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Pace: the final frontier VI

As I present this final part of the series, I want to thank everyone who has made the effort to follow along. Nowadays, there is so much going on in our lives it can be tough to find time to embrace new ideas.

My ambition for Pace: the final frontier was to get you thinking. I deliberately wrote it in conceptual form for this purpose; the best way to engage people in a subject is to present its basic ideas in a way which individual minds can develop for themselves. I hope that has been achieved.

As the weeks and months of the Flat season progress, I will be relying time and again on these first principles to develop ideas specific to races and horses in the current spotlight.

Inevitably, a few of the examples I draw will be from the US, France, Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong - in other words the countries whose punters are enlightened by sectional times.

As I write this, it is still hard to believe that the UK and Ireland are missing from that list. Those who say that sectionals cannot add anything to British and Irish racing cannot know what they are missing. 

When I first started watching racing 25 years ago, it was extremely rare to hear even a horse's final time mentioned on television. But, tune into Racing UK now - and sometimes even At The Races - and you will hear cogent, intelligent analysis of times on a daily basis. 

But, we should have moved on from that 20 years ago. Sectionals enable us to understand the limitations of final time as an objective assessment of performance. To repeat that mantra: it is not how fast they run, it is how they run fast.

Given that British and Irish racing doesn't have sectionals and is unlikely to get them in the near future, I will show you it is possible to apply the concepts of pace developed here without them. All that when the Flat season on turf finally arrives.

* * *


EVALUATING THOROUGHBRED SPEED: A PRIMER ON PACE (cont.)

5.2 Final definitions

As we conclude, here are three important definitions which have been established in the text. If you take nothing else from the series, merely a conceptual awareness of the following should nourish your understanding as you develop ideas about pace suitable for your own application.

Even pace is merely the subdivision of a race into sections of distance and time which represent the minimum variance in average speed. 

In the US, races are timed from a running start, so even pace for a 6f race may be represented by three two-furlong sections of 23sec, for instance. In countries where times are recorded from a standing start - such as the UK and Ireland - even pace for a 6f race may instead be represented by three two-furlong sections of 24.7sec-23sec-23sec.
This, of course, is not constant speed but the closest thing to it, given the implications of a standing start.

Ideal pace is the real-world application of even pace, taking into account not only the effect of features such as bends and hills, but the different energy types available to a horse over various distances. 

Sprinters have to run slightly faster than even pace early when powerful, anaerobic energy is available to their many fast-twitch muscle fibres. But this effect rapidly fades with distance.

"Ideal pace is a proxy for optimal energy use," Glenn Alcoe puts it.

Ideal pace for a 6f race at Belmont Park, for instance, might be represented by two-furlong sectionals of 22.8sec-23.5sec-23.2sec.

The first section is the fastest because the proportion of total energy derived anaerobically is at its highest; the second section is the slowest owing to horses having to negotiate the bend; the third section is slower than the first but faster than the second because it is straight but the horse is now much more dependent on aerobic energy.

Standard sectionals are the fractions most commonly run by horses achieving fast times over a particular course and distance. They vary from ideal pace because of the tactical demands of a race, particularly the need to run hard early in US racing in order to make a bend.

Standard sectionals enable us to profile the energy requirements of a particular course and distance, and sometimes specifically a race like the Derby at Epsom or the Kentucky Derby.

In galloping tracks in Europe, standard sectionals are usually very close to those represented by ideal pace. But at tracks in the UK with tight bends or short straights, standard sectionals are again tilted more towards early pace.

5.3 Recommended reading  

There are few good books on the technical analysis of racing and energy use. They are not specifically about sectionals but give you the ability to reach that understanding. The two that stand out to my mind are:

Handicapping Speed by Charles Carroll (The Lyons Press). A wonderful, esoteric US book with sections that are so good they nearly blew my mind. I used to go about for the rest of the week with his words circling in my head. Carroll led me to become interested in Chaos Theory.
When I first read this book, it made me think how little intelligent analysis had penetrated horse racing. It convinced me that spending my life thinking about racehorses was worthwhile because of the beauty of intelligent expression.
Whenever I feel a bit down, I reach for this book. Parts of it are so well expressed it is bewildering, almost emotional to read.

But the No 1 all-time in my view...

Bioenergetics and Racehorse Ratings by Bob Wilkins (Overdee Press; www.overdee.com). I have never met the author but I would like to. When I read this book, I became terribly depressed: I saw it as the book inside me, the only one I ever wanted to write but didn't have the balls or the brains.
Wilkins' magnificent mathematical adventure through human and equine athletic performance is not for those frightened off by equations. 
But, as a friend told me on reading it: "You don't need to understand maths, you can just trust Bob."
I feel the book veers a little into subjective territory with its treatment of ratings near the end, but that is like saying that Jayne Torvill had a zit on her nose during Bolero.

5.4 Conclusion

Hopefully, this series leaves as many questions open as it has answered. That would be great.

I will be attempting to answer many of these - including that lingering one about Secretariat and the Belmont - in separate posts which are self-contained. Though not much of a populist, even I realise that readers are often dissuaded from tackling posts described as "Part XXVII", for instance.

Next time, I will answer any remaining questions the series has thrown up.