Monday, 14 February 2011

Pace: the final frontier

This is a jouney into pace. I am doing it for selfish reasons.

I have written thousands of words on pace which were not suitable for publication in the Racing Post, and I have tens of thousands of pace numbers on my database. I am going to put both to use here in an expansive series on pace, sectionals and race times.

During my career as a journalist, I was guilty of not searching for enough feedback. I allowed myself to become too isolated through fear of criticism based on personality not argument, that which sadly proliferates on some forums.

As many of you know, I was good at responding to those who expressed themselves intelligently and in a non-hostile fashion. I wish I had been more tolerant, however, and not taken what the few idiots said to heart.

Over the years, I have received some really intelligent criticism about my writing. I have tried hard to improve. Sometimes, my style was too didactic, sometimes too self-assured, sometimes I plain missed the point. My tendency in life is to look back and wince. Believe me: my writing is the source of plenty of that.

Anyway, I just did not make enough effort to understand the exact level that racing fans were at from a techincal standpoint. I took the view that my readers had a sophisticated outlook and did not needs things constantly explained, that they could take the time to work things out for themselves.

I now recognise that this was lazy and elitist.

It is clear now just being involved with Twitter friends that there are some formidable minds out there who revel in sophisticated concepts. Equally, there are those who are just as bright but focus on staying at a level which is successful in the practical setting with which they are concerned.

The point is that you should make an effort to include people who might become readers, not make assumptions about those who are not. Good job I worked for a trade paper.

I will always be fascinated by how people think. For personal reasons, I am currently working on not living too much in my mind, but I am afraid this is the land I have spent my life roaming. So, excuse me if I become too analytical, too esoteric - it is tremendous to access the mental processes other people use.

Like all journeys, this journey into pace must begin with a single step.

The basics first. In further postings in this series, I will discuss some of the most advanced concepts with which pace and sectional times are involved. That should be in time for the Flat season on turf where I hope to draw on real-time examples of races from Europe and the US.

Underneath is a primer on pace. I hope it is pitched well enough to feed a broad range of appetites. For those of you who find it too simple, don't worry: we are only scratching the surface here.

The notes are extracted from, or based upon, the annual presentation I give to Darley Stud's Flying Start scheme. I love being involved with the students and have now seen about five or six classes, I think.

Some of the graduates have found fulfilling roles in the sport in Britain and Ireland, others abroad. It has all been a superb experience, that's for sure. Anyway, they always seem to enjoy the discussion we have. I hope you get something from it too.

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EVALUATING THOROUGHBRED SPEED: A PRIMER ON PACE

1.0 Introduction

A horse's running time ought to provide an objective guide to its merit. After all, the race is to the swift.

So, comparing the times of races run over the same distance should provide a reliable comparison of their relative quality. But experience tells us that often it does not.

Why?

There are many factors which muddy the water. Racecourses have different layouts and relief; the state of the going can be different; weather conditions, such as wind and rain, can take effect.

Some of these factors are self-evident. It is obvious, for example, that a horse will take longer to run five furlongs at Ascot than at Epsom - one track makes the journey net uphill and the other net downhill.

It is equally obvious than soft or yielding ground causes a horse to run slower than on firm ground. Similarly, running into a headwind is a different matter to running with a tailwind.

All this affects the way we look at performances against the clock. But none is more fascinating and complex than the effect of variable pace.

This is an exercise which provides us with valuable insights into the nature of the thoroughbred and the sport in which it features.

2.0 Development of basic ideas about pace

As a general concept, the most efficient way for a racehorse to span two points is at even pace. A horse running at even pace maximises its ability because of the physical relationship between speed and energy use.

I won't get more technical at this point, but this relationship can be derived easily from some of the basic tenets of physics we all did at school.

More excitingly, it can also be inferred from data. If, for example, you study a large sample of six-furlong races in the US, for instace, the fastest running times at each class level come in races where the three two-furlong split times show the least variation.

2.1 Sensitive dependence on even pace

As a result of 2.0, a horse's running time for the whole race and that of any small section show a see-saw relationship. This is particularly relevant when we compare the split time for the opening few furlongs of the race - tantamount to the horse's early-pace - with its time for the race as a whole.

We find that small variations in a horse's early pace result in much bigger variations in its overall time. This is a profound relationship for many reasons, just one of which relates to the elusive definition of what constitutes  thoroughbred "class".

Class, of course, is the synthesis of multiple factors in the racehorse, some psychological, others physical. From a technical standpoint, however, it may be best approximated by "the ability to withstand early pace".

It is this capacity of the equine athlete which results in the greatest variation in its expressed ability.

2.2 A snapshot of unparalleled class

Perhaps the most amazing example of a great horse withstanding the effects of early pace comes from the 1973 Belmont Stakes in New York. If only we had sectional times in Europe, we would probably have been aware of several comparable feats by some of our great horses.

Anyway, Secretariat's record time of 2min 24sec for the mile and a half came when he ran each of the 12 furlongs as follows:

12 1/5, 11 2/5, 11 2/5
11 1/5, 12, 11 3/5
12 1/5, 12 1/5, 12
12 4/5, 12 1/5, 12 4/5

Racetimes in the US were - and still are - measured primarily in fifths of a second because that is assumed to be the time equivalent of a racehorse length.

These furlong splits combine to make quarter-mile equivalents that are pretty much the language of pace in the US and elsewhere:

23 3/5, 22 3/5, 23 3/5, 24 2/5, 24 4/5, 25 

As you can see, this is nothing like even pace. In fact, Secretariat not surprisingly deccelerated as the effects of the early pace took their toll.

His feat of still running a time which remains a race-record for the Belmont is best described by reference to William Nack's fantastic book on Secretariat, recently made into a film:

"They are running as if it's a six-furlong sprint...far too fast for the distance...They have rushed through the fastest opening half-mile of the Belmont Stakes...

"Five-eights of a mile in a sensational 58 1/5...faster than Spanish Riddle [who once ran 1:08 for 6f at Saratoga] in the fifth that day...Six furlongs in 1:09 4/5...There are gasps from the crowd...That's suicidal...

"A mile in 1:34 1/5...that's an incredible fraction, far faster than any horse has run in the Belmont Stakes...70,000 people are screaming...He can't stand up to this...

"The crowd has gone deafening...Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine...Nine furlongs in 1:46 1/5...He has tied the record for that distance...

"He is still galloping to the beat of twelve...1:59 for the mile and a quarter - two fifths faster than his Derby time and a track record by a second...

"The wire looms, the teletimer blinks and then it stops...2:24...His only point of reference is himself."

But isn't this interesting? Secretariat's Belmont time was 144 seconds or 12 seconds x 12 furlongs. Perfect symmetry.

For this reason, I think of it as a golden number and a baseline for all feats of thoroughbred speed.

* * *

I hoped you enjoyed the first part of this primer on pace. I haven't finished with Secretariat, and there is loads else more to come too.