Thursday, 10 March 2011

Sectional healing I

In this occasional series, I will be highlighting examples of the use of sectional times by others. 

You already know of my deep frustration when people spout rubbish like: "Sectionals have limited application to British racing because of the variety of our courses."

When I encounter this, I like to think of a football crowd standing and chanting: "You don't know what you're doing!" at the individual concerned.

In fact, even now I can feel the tension rising in my shoulders. 

When I get that feeling, I need sectional healing; sectional healing makes me feel so fine.

So, first up is a BHA handicapper. "What?" you might say. "The same firm that came up with those funky two-year-old ratings last year? No way!"

Am I only joking? Yes, of course. 

I have always been positively disposed to the work of Britain's hard-pressed team of official handicappers. I worked with some of them at Timeform and know first-hand of their top-notch ability.

I do think it is a little ridiculous when they take credit for close finishes or tightly-packed fields, however. It is far more likely that randomness or pace is the reason, rather than the genius of the assessor.

If the BHA handicappers deserve credit for blanket finishes, doesn't it follow they should be criticised for wide-margin wins?

Nobody in their right mind would do that. So, the corollary is that the same must apply to close finishes.

Anyway, back to sectional times. I cannot praise BHA handicapper Stewart Copeland highly enough for what appeared on the BHA handicapper's blog recently. This article is well worth checking out every week, either on the authority's own website or Racingpost.com.

I didn't need to read Stewart's words to know he is a first-class operator. 

Not only does he give us a great insight into the intelligent way he rates horses, but he also provides a useful tutorial on how you can bring sectional times into your life and punting.

The parts of Stewart's missive which I have underlined make my heart sing. As a general point, there are two clues - among many contained within - which prove that you are reading the thoughts of a handicapper who knows his craft:

1) He doesn't constantly use phrases like "I rated the race through". Clearly, we all employ sloppy language occasionally, and I am not saying anyone should be condemned for their words - if their actions speak louder to the contrary. But, it makes me cringe when handicappers use this expression.

A race should be rated around as many horses as possible - and not by choosing the one most likely to have "reproduced" his figure.

The purpose is to broaden the sample-size and try to ensure the correct balance of as many ratings as possible (see point 2). 

Looking for a "marker-horse" or some such nonsense inevitably leads to many bogus conclusions about races. I call this the "sample-of-one" fallacy.

2) As Stewart mentions underneath, a good handicapper employs standards, or class-pars for US readers. It is indisputable that using standards is massively important to good handicapping.

Standards - derived from the past results of the same race or similar ones to it - are crucial for many reasons. They stop the average figure of the population drifting, for instance. 

Expressed more formally: standards provide a framework over which a handicapper can layer his individual interpretations while maintaining the mathematical relationship between horses in the population and races in the database.

I am sure that BHA handicappers are well aware of both these ideals whch is why they do such a good job.

* * *

Stewart Copeland, BHA handicapper (The link to the full article is here.)

"Race-riding and tactics often play a key role in determining the outcome of a race, and this year's renewal of the Listed 6f Cleves Stakes at Lingfield on Saturday [26 February] aptly demonstrated that.

"At first glance the success of the front-running 16-1 outsider Waveband may appear a puzzling result, but when the race is looked at in greater detail it provides a fascinating insight into how pace, or quite often lack of it, can be crucial.

"The first thing that struck me when analysing the race was the overall time was around 8lb slower than the handicap over the same distance - won by the 74-rated Norville - earlier in the afternoon. However the end time [or "final time" here at TFNL] only tells part of the story, and this is where sectional timing comes in.

"A slow time can result from an overly strong pace or a steady one, and sectional timing helps paint the picture.

"In comparing the two races the sectional times showed the handicap was run at a stronger pace through the first 4f, the sectionals at the 2f, 3f & 4f marker all producing quicker times than the Listed contest.

"It was only in the last 2f that the gap narrowed - hardly surprising given the respective quality of the two fields - though the handicap still marginally came out the quicker.

"What do we glean from this? Simply the winner of the Blue Square-sponsored Listed race was given a very good ride! Looking at the race beforehand, there seemed very few contenders for the lead, and Waveband's jockey Martin Dwyer utilised his filly to maximum effect.

"The sectionals suggest he left just enough in the tank to repel a posse of challengers, several of which had refused to settle off the modest pace which hardly helped their cause.

"There's little doubt the form is potentially muddling, with the first nine covered by two lengths, and I decided a cautious approach to summing up Waveband's improvement was best. I eventually settled on a figure of 96, an improvement of 5lb from her previous best of 91.

"This is a few pounds below the standard I'd normally expect for the Cleves Stakes, but given how the race panned out, I think it's the sensible view to take for now. "