Going The Distance

One of the most common questions  in horse racing, is “will he benefit from the step up / down in trip?” In most cases the question is framed as “will he stay the trip” as horses are typically moving up in distance as they become older and more mature.

Pundits tend to rely on two sources of information to answer this question. First is the evidence of their eyes. If a horse is seen to be “staying on” in previous his previous race, this is seen as evidence that it might be better over a longer trip. In contrast, horses that weaken are seen as unlikely to stay a longer distance. This is compelling at first glance, though, in reality, much of what your eyes are telling you is the result of the class of the race, the pace of the race and the tactics employed in that race. Prominent racers may weaken off too strong a pace and hold up horses may close off a strong pace, but these clues are misleading when attempting to gauge stamina. Much of what you see in a race is an optical illusion and this can be demonstrated by looking at sectional times from races. Pundits get excited by horses “quickening” but, in reality, all horses are slowing during the final furlong of most races. The fastest sections of the race are invariably the 3-2f or 2-1f sections. 

Secondly, pundits look to the breeding of the horse in question. Often this analysis is fleeting and barely scratches the surface. The worst offenders will suggest “sons of Galileo appreciate this sort of trip”, others will include the racing record of the dam, but few will go back any further in the pedigree. Of course, apart from the top class races, which the media justifiably spend a disproportionate amount of their time upon, there simply is not the time, nor the interest / inclination to research thoroughly the pedigree of a horse stepping up in trip in, for example,  a Listed event.

The pundits are utilising the correct tools, but not correctly!

The whole concept of “he doesn’t stay a mile and a half” is flawed. Horses don’t stop running once they reach a certain distance! Horses do have an optimum distance at which they perform best, but around that distance they simply run to a lesser level. I have no evidence, but I would think that if you graphed the performances they would look like the bell shape of a normal distribution.

So, how do we utilise this knowledge?  Do not be solely influenced by a horses winning record. Having a (D) next to it’s name in the racecard is not necessarily evidence that it is most effective at today’s distance. A far better guide is the collateral form rating a horse has been allocated at different distances. A horse may win a maiden over 10f and achieve a rating of 90, but then run a 110 in a handicap over 12f when finishing in 3rd. Ignoring the relevant factors of progression, class, pace, for the sake of simplicity here, 12f would appear the optimum distance on the evidence to date.

A horse’s pedigree is another vital clue to optimum distance. This is especially true when a horse is relatively lightly raced and the form-book / racecourse evidence is limited. Pedigrees influence confirmation, ability and stamina. It can be an accurate prediction tool, before we have “hard” evidence. I use a web-site that enables me to check the pedigree of any racehorse (current or otherwise) going back many generations. As a proxy for likely stamina, I have borrowed the principles of the dosage index. This is a somewhat controversial method of assessing likely stamina and the pros and cons can be researched by a quick google search and so I won’t bore you with them in this article. Suffice to say, the predictive power is strong enough in many situations, when horses change distance. It has become a vital tool in my own betting and, most importantly, it is not yet factored into the market.