Wednesday, 16 March 2011

This is the story of the Hurricane...

Sectionals for Supreme Novices' and Champion Hurdle

Elapsed time
Winner              to 2nd   to 4th   to 3out   to last   to line
Al Ferof              49.3     116.1   173.6     216.6    229.5
Hurricane Fly     51.0     119.5   174.7     217.1    230.4

Split time
Winner              to 2nd   to 4th   to 3out   to last   to line
Al Ferof              49.3     66.8     57.5       43.0     12.9
Hurricane Fly     51.0     68.5     55.2       42.4     13.3

(times are given in seconds and are specific to each horse)

Measured from the starting line to the finish - seemingly a unique way to clock jumps races - Hurricane Fly's running time for the Champion Hurdle was 230.4sec - 0.9sec slower than Supreme winner Al Ferof.

As many of you will know, this is no guide to their respective merit.

Comparing the performance of horses by means of their final time alone is deeply flawed. It should be clear the two races were run in contrasting fashion.

From what can be inferred safely from just a two-race sample, the Champion can be generalised as following a 'slow-fast-slow' tempo. (Simon Rowlands describes it more specifically as 'steady-quite fast-steady'.)

A pattern like this is just about the least efficient way to achieve optimal final time, so we must make allowance for it when assessing Hurricane Fly's winning time.

But there is also an extremely important tenet to observe when breaking down such races: the distances between runners at the finish are often compressed. So, horses of much lesser talent than those involved up front can be beaten shorter distances than in a truly run race.

It is my strongly held belief that the finish of the Champion featured two outstanding hurdlers in Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross. Moreover, I would back either to beat an in-form Binocular.

There is a fair amount of subjectivity in this opinion. I can't prove it on the basis of yesterday's race. Equally, however, it is not a view I have picked out of midair. Let me explain.

Experience of assessing thousands of races in the US - including on turf - led me to reach the understanding that the average distance between runners at the end of a race is more strongly correlated to the early pace than it is to their relative merit.

This, of course, runs contrary to a significant plank of what is often referred to as "collateral form" handicapping. When horses are assessed on the basis of 'who beat whom and by how far', a fixed scale is employed to convert lengths to pounds by most handicappers. Often, the highest ratings are awarded in races where there are extended distances between runners at the finish.

This is not only sensible but also fundamental to rating races around standards, as I described in the blog praising BHA handicapper Stewart Copeland. 

If you know nothing else about a race than the result, a race in which the runners finish spread out should receive a higher figure than one of the same class in which the field is compacted.

But, thanks to sectionals, we know a lot more about a race than this. We know how it was run, how the shape of the finish was influenced by its tempo. 

And it is not only common sense that encourages us to believe there is a causal link between the pace of a race and the distances between runners at the finish - we can use techniques like regression to understand the relationship mathematically. 

When you consider only the result of the Champion Hurdle, there is a serious problem in according Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross ratings which would justify my view that they are outstanding - even by the standards of the race.

No doubt you will read different views about the race in the days to come. Handicappers will say things like: "With 155-rated Clerk's Choice beaten 11.5 lengths in sixth, there is no reason to think that Hurricane Fly's pre-race rating of 167 has been improved upon."

There will be many variations of the same concept. And many of you will agree. 

Indeed, this is an entirely reasonable view - at least within the strictures of conventional handicapping.

It is therefore not 'wrong'. But it is seriously limited.

In a race run like the Champion - with a slow early pace and an unsustainable mid-race burst - a length at the finish may be worth a lot more than the pound of weight of which it is assumed to be roughly the equivalent. In such a contest as the Champion, horses separated on the scale of ratings by 10 points will not finish as much as 10 lengths apart.

In the US races I studied, I found an exponential relationship between the first-half-mile sectional of a race and the average distance between runners at the end. It was this which led me to believe that the ability to withstand early pace was the nearest single approximation to the ethereal notion of 'class' in the racehorse.

As you ascend the class scale, the final-time ability of racehorses changes. But, measured in percentage terms, there is a much bigger difference in the early pace which horses can sustain while still giving their optimal performance.

And this applies to both turf and dirt. (How it applies to synthetics still confuses me greatly, however.) The relationship between the two surfaces is different - late pace counts for a lot more on grass - but the same principle holds.

When it comes to the Champion, I do not have enough data to give you a figure which represents the true difference in ability between Hurricane Fly and horses like Thousand Stars, Clerk's Choice and, even, Bygones Of Brid. 

The Supreme and the Champion are just two races and provide nothing like the breadth of data sufficient to forge the necessary relationship.

But I am saying this: from everything I have learned about pace and energy through studying sectionals, I am thoroughly convinced that the distance between horses at the end of the Champion was compressed.

The early pace was just not strong enough to provide a true reflection of the relative merits of the runners when assessed by the result.

So, it is my contention that the ratings handicappers will allot to Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross will underestimate their talent. By how much, I am just not sure.