Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Equine Flow Psychology III

If Secretariat's Belmont Stakes win was an affront to the even-pace ideal, so too was his previous win in the Kentucky Derby. This time, however, the distribution of energy described by sectional times was tilted in the other direction.

Secretariat's individual sectionals at Churchill Downs in 1973 were:

25 1/5   24   23 4/5   23 2/5   23

Each split was faster than its predecessor(s) for a time of 1:59 2/5 which still stands as the race record. Secretariat also lost ground on the first turn, adding to the merit of his performance.

Putting together the evidence provided by this race and the Belmont, it's clear that Secretariat had a lot more than just the ability to run super fast final times. He had extreme tactical versatility, too.

As everyone who cares about racing should know, Secretariat was an outlier to the thoroughbred talent continuum. According to my experience, the vast majority of horses do not own anything like his versatility.

Most are reliant on the race being run to suit. They might be a front-running type who needs to be left alone to run evenly, or a closer who thrives off a solid gallop because he can still run evenly while starting off at the back of the pack.

Notice that the most important factor in terms of pace is whether a horse is running evenly - not his position relative to other runners. That's an important distinction and a frequent mistake in analysis.

But, the manner in which Secretariat achieved 2:24 in the Belmont Stakes still needs an explanation which can be applied equally to other horses and other races.

Yes, Secretariat was an unusually talented horse. But, from my experience of many other horses who achieve fast times unevenly, I am drawn to believe that he would not have beaten that startling 2:24 by much, even if running the first half of the race more conservatively.

I believe that the psychological response of a racehorse can make a significant difference to its physical output; that the energy supply to a running horse is, at least in some part, contingent on its reaction to competition and its attitude to the mental stress of running hard.

Before I explain this idea further, I want to relay an anecdote which influenced my thinking to a degree. It happened, unexpectedly, at Ballydoyle.

Five years ago, when I was on the Racing Post, I attended Aidan O'Brien's media day along with a countless throng of other journalists. As the trainer was drawing his tour of the yard to a close, one of his assistants tugged my sleeve and told me to wait by some boxes at the top of a nearby yard.

I found myself there with Chris McGrath, The Independent's excellent racing correspondent and sports writer. I will never forget what followed.

O'Brien soon arrived and led us to his jeep. We followed the horses to the gallops while he talked about several topics of the day.

He told us we had been selected to talk to Kieren Fallon who was then the Ballydoyle stable jockey. But, while waiting in an office for Fallon to arrive, O'Brien mentioned a phrase I had used in a piece about some of his great horses. I had referred to one "seeing the dark side".

O'Brien proceeded to give Chris and I an amazing insight into his philosophy as a trainer. Instead of phrasing things in either the pat language of horse racing or in academic terms, he proceeded to discuss the psychology of his horses with near-spiritual zeal. Our audience lasted just 15 minutes but every second was magical.

Becoming more animated, O'Brien talked about how he feels the great equine athlete tends to develop. He said that horses would go only so far into their reserves before starting to back off from the exertion, even the pain.

He talked about putting heart-rate monitors on his horses in the morning and learning how little effort the really good ones made in half-speed gallops. But in faster work, the best horses were actually prepared to give more and dig deeper. And this was a significant part of what made them successful.

In particular, what enabled his champions to rack up sequences, he implied, was a growing confidence that the feelings of all-out exertion wouldn't hurt them; that they could give more freely and not back off from the increasing pressure on their system.

But, if a young or developing horse pushed itself too far because of the flight response, it might be reluctant to mine its talent so deeply again. In my words not O'Brien's, it could see the "dark side" of competition and learn that running hard hurts.

When Secretariat set off at that torrid pace in the Belmont, I think it likely he became in thrall to his talent. He might have been spurred on by the psychological flow of running so freely, to which his system responded with a positive feedback loop and delivered maximum energy to his tiring muscles.

Perhaps if Secretariat had gone steadier early on - if he had not been pestered by Sham and raced within himself - his system may not have responded the same way. 

With the benefit of even pace, he might have run slightly faster than 2:24. We will never know. But, it seems hard to believe he could have achieved a significant improvement on that still unparalleled mark.

When horses respond most fully to their experience during a race, I believe they produce absolute peak performances. And - using the principle of regression to the mean from the Bounce Theory - they are more likely than not to fall below the same level next time.

Human Flow Psychology was first formalised by the Hungarian professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - 97pts in Scrabble - as that feeling of being "in the zone". This is the concept that competition can promote heightened awareness, concentration and mental strength that enables some athletes to exceed their normal capabilities at times of great stress.

It has been shown in the laboratory that humans can control their own blood pressure, heart-rate and sweat glands simply by intense focus on the moment and its particular demands.

Horses may not be cognisant of the ambitions of a race, but to deny them possession of a psychological response to the experience seems to fly in the face of not just what we sense, but what we know about the electrical activity in their brains during exercise on a treadmill.

If Flow Psychology also applies to horses - which seems reasonable - it must be important when projecting performance on the basis of sectional times. It suggests that some horses may not be constrained by the even pace-optimal time paradigm because of their need to relate to competition in their own particular way.

When I built up a database of US racing sectionals from 2001-3, the noise I saw in numerous cases - horses who could only achieve fast times while departing from the ideal - could have been Equine Flow Psychology at work.

Now, in every case, it would be just as easy to infer a physiological reason for the aberrant pattern of sectionals.

Take late-running sprinters, for instance. Perhaps their metabolism works slowly; perhaps they are stiff and take time to warm up; perhaps it isn't that they need or want to lag behind early and come flying home, it is the imposition of their physical limitations.

All this is possible. It is just that I think of the particular sectional imprint of a horse as being driven, at least in some part, by their psychology.

Those deep-closing sprinters should be able to run faster times if they didn't cover the first quarter so slowly. But when niggled at early to run more even fractions, some do worse.

And others who blitz off and finish weakly ought to do better when their speed is rationed, but some of them never do. It's not lack of stamina, as many prove better suited to longer races in due course.

At a steadier early pace, they appear more composed, race more evenly and finish with more determination. It all just seems more consistent with the type of thing O'Brien was describing; that they are willing to run harder because the different tempo suits them psychologically.

Next time, I will tell you why I believe that there is a distribution of acceptable pace around the ideal which is directly driven by the peculiar needs of each horse within the population.

Plus, I will outline why it is vital to make a differentiation between psychological and physical when interpreting sectional times. Their confusion can lead to different conclusions and is vital to proper race-reading, even for those with no access to the numbers.