Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Pace Puzzle Starring Blame & Zenyatta

Derek Simon wrote a neat article on pace recently where he looked at fast and slow half mile split times and their effect on the final time. He found, that over a large sample, a brisk to moderate pace results in the fastest final time. Too fast or too slow, and we don't see it quite as much.

Intuitively this doesn't make sense, but if we think about it a little more deeply, it does.

Like humans, a horses final time is a representation of their internal fractions, where even ones are relaxed and comfortable, stops and starts, fast and slow, are uncomfortable. Physics taught us that in high school. In general, in route races, the larger the variance between internal quarters, the less efficient the energy use. Horses - no matter what fractions the leader puts up - who "run their race" will have a better final time.

People have talked about it in idiomatic terms for a hundred years: "It's not how fast they run, it's how they run fast".

If we look at the Breeders Cup in 2010, Blame exemplifies this well. Not only did he get a clean inside trip, he ran his fractions with not very much variance at all (average fractions for a 2:02.3 race would be about 24.4). It was a fairly even effort, which should result in him running exactly to his ability, or arguably a decent figure:
  • Blame                       24.6     24.5     23.7     24.6     24.9
His bigger third quarter probably took its toll late, where he came home in almost 25 seconds. Good for Blame.

Zenyatta ran these numbers:
  •  Zenyatta                   26.3     23.7     23.7     24.5     24.1
I guess if we were comparing internal fractions we'd say she was the much better horse. She ran uneven, and in a stop and start.

But here is where the simple concept of even fractions muddies a pace puzzle.

Blame's fractions fit his running style perfectly, and were pretty ideal. Zenyatta's probably fit her pretty well too. She was a deep closer, and racing her as Mike Smith did (although he took tons of criticism for the loss) arguably allowed her to fire her gun.

At Santa Anita in the 2009 Breeders Cup (on a faster surface) she ran these fractions:
  •  SA BCC            26.9     23.3     23.3     23.9    23.2
I'm of the belief she was in better form and faster in 2009, however the numbers are not too far off what she ran at Churchill (and thankfully stopped the "she's only a synthetic horse" nonsense).

So, not only do we have to look at pace and internal fractions when assessing a horse's final time, we have to look at running style, too.

When interviewed by Horseplayer Magazine, Mike Maloney said "I think evaluating pace is still an area where there’s still some opportunity if a person takes the time to do it."

I think there's no doubt he's right. If you want to open a can of worms, open one that contains the concept of pace. You can spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, but it's a fascinating mental exercise.


Anonymous said...

Since you are not a trainer nor a horse, this is nothing but your thoughts, so why should we read it or follow it. Its nothing by gobblegook.

kyle said...

As gobbledygook goes though it's no match for "It's nothing by gobblegook."

Anyways, I thought you were part horse, Pocket? So having that sense I thought it worthwhile to read what you wrote. For me, pace, acceleration and running style(the three things I think we're talking about here) are closely related and intertwined but essentially three different things. Pace is how fast the front runners go to either the half in a sprint or three quarters in a route. Running style is positional propensity. Acceleration is turn of foot - the ability to fire a fast fraction at a crucial part of the race. For me, a legit effort - one I can hang my handicapping hat on as a true indication of ability - is not helped or compromised by too slow or too fast a pace, is achieved by being "in the race througout" (I like horses that are never farther than five lengths back at any point. Zenyatta - she was a horse of a different kind. It was what made her great), and is capped by a third and/or final fraction that demonstrates the ability to accelerate while under physical duress and in the key moments of the race. A final time figure earned under those circumstances and with those features I'll take at face value. Others I'll need to make mental adjustments to, usually downgrading them.

Pull the Pocket said...

Hey Kyle,

What you mention is why I like looking at overblown turf figs. A perfect set up and perfect fig on the grass ensures a good number - sometimes one that will never be repeated. Rydilluc's win at GP comes to mind. Moving a turf horse into a quickening second quarter, for another example, I may upgrade. I like running styles, turn of foot and pace in turf quite a bit. I think there's something there.

For sprints I simply plead no mas. A fig I find is generally a fig, although with running styles there are certainly perfect trips.

There was a study by a math dude on sprints that I read on the web and he thought he found the holy grail with pace, only to get his head handed to him. I find that to be partially true.

How was the Lexington trip?


kyle said...

The trip was really nice. The people of Lexington are a cordial lot. Our location was great - two miles from the track, easy access to downtown. It's an easy place to get around. The weather was good, although the first part of Blue Grass Day was frigid in the grandstand. Made in to Woodford Reserve, Three Chimneys (Brilliant Speed charging his paddock fencing and the tour group was the highlight), and Raven Run for a hike before hitting the races Thursday through Sunday. Got off to a good start at the windows. Lost some key photos on Saturday, especially the Shakertown (what a stretch drive). Lost my edge by Sunday. Think I left it at a place called The Henry Clay Public House. Overall it was a lot of fun.