Monday, August 16, 2021

The Bounce & Energy Distribution is Not Just for Handicapping Horses

I read a fascinating book recently: The Bascomb tome, The Perfect Mile, examined three runners and their quest to lower the mile race record below the long-thought impossible 4 minute barrier. What was most remarkable (and unexpected) to me was how often while reading it I thought about horses. 

The book began with Britain's Roger Bannister's failure at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Bannister began training on his own for the seminal racing event, and shunned most help. This was not a Shakespearean flaw, he was extremely bright and nuanced with training, but a wrench just before the Olympics was thrown into the mix. The IOC added a semi-final race, so he'd have to race three times instead of two. He had specifically trained for two races, not three. 

In the final, Bannister paced himself perfectly and was sitting 5th with about 150 metres to go - the spot he usually kicked to the finish in an all-out sprint - and expected, like most watchers, gold. But when he tried to kick he had no legs. There was no muscle response and he finished in 4th, not even medaling. 

Upon reflection, Bannister concluded that he simply bounced. He needed two or three days to recover and with the extra race that was impossible. He did not have the stamina to race three legs. 

In the future he'd do things differently. In the absence of recovery time he had to train harder; to build up stamina to protect from the bounce. 

In Thoroughbred racing the bounce is real, even though the excuse might be used way too often to explain a poor performance. In that sport, however, trainers seem to have chosen to increase recovery time, rather than building up stamina. This is no bueno for the sport, because field size and frequency of racing is so important to handle. In harness racing, on week to week schedules, I do believe the modern trainer protects from bounces by training. A top trainer in the sport - Ron Burke - is known to train his horses hard, and they rarely bounce. You'll often see two year olds in certain barns falter because of a lack of foundation - asking for speed before stamina. 

Meanwhile, Bannister learned something else pretty quickly in his quest - energy distribution. He wrote, "I simply can not go as fast if I race at 58 lap, followed by a 1:02, followed by a 58. I need to concentrate on my cadence at 1:00 per lap to use my kick".  

Bannister focused on even energy and relaxation - he even wanted to feel the tips of his fingers completely relaxed while running. 

Reading that is like a hammer to the head for us handicappers, right?

Distributing energy evenly is what makes a turf horse fire home; watching them relax from start to finish often results in career best figures. It makes a harness horse race some of their best times, despite perhaps a lack of fast fractions early, which is counterintuitive. I don't think this is used enough by us as handicappers when evaluating a horse's chances, quite frankly. That turf miler who went 23-25-23 is not going to fire a near optimal race. When I see that happen I do pay special attention if he or she flattens, hoping for a higher price next time. 

The physiology and science behind a man trying to run a four minute mile or a horse trying to run or pace or trot one might seem like apples and oranges, but it really isn't. There's an optimal way to maximize result when pushing a body to extreme speed. Humans who race get it, and so do many top trainers. Us handicappers should always be aware of it too. 

Have a nice Monday everyone.  

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