The early pace at the Cheltenham Festival – where does it pay to be?
by David Cormack
Pace, as we all know, is vital in any horse race. If the pace is too fast up front, you don’t want to be sitting too close to it, burning your energy reserves too soon. Conversely, if the pace is too slow, you don’t want to give the leaders too much start as they may still have enough energy left at the end to see you off.
With this in mind I thought it’d be interesting to see how the early positioning of the runners related to their finishing position in the race. I looked at 25 of the races at least year’s Cheltenham Festival, discounting the Arkle and Ryanair (small fields) and the Cross Country, and identified the position of the horses that eventually finished 1st to 4th in each race as they passed the stands and headed out into the country on their first time past the stands (bearing in mind in some races they pass the stands twice). The exact point I took the reading was just as they turned away from the main stand and cross the area where they place the tape (or rail now) to doll it off next time round.
I split the field in each race into three groups, those in the first third, the middle third and the final third in each race.
It’d be wrong to draw any firm conclusions (even if the data appeared to strongly indicate any particular feature) as the sample sizes are very low and there is no attempt to correlate other factors in order to identify causation. But I thought it’d be interesting to take a look.
Another important thing to bear in mind is that the sampling point, as they race away from the stands, occurs at a different stage of each race depending on the race distance. In the two mile and three mile two furlongs races this occurs relatively early in the race while in the three mile races they’ve almost travelled a full circuit before they reach this point.
The charts shows the % of horses positioned in each third of the field, the horses split into two groups, those who went on to place 2nd, 3rd or 4th representing one group (the blue columns) and those who went on to win the race (the maroon column).
The first chart above shows the results of the analysis for all 25 races. It shows that the distribution of placed horses was skewed positively towards those who took up a position in the first third of the field passing the stands first time, 44% of them, while only 18% of the placed horses started out in the final third.
The opposite, in a much smaller sample, was true for winners. 40% of the winners (10 in all) started in the back third while 28% started in the front third. In addition to being the ‘opposite way round’ there was not as much skew in the chart for the winner’s positions (7 winners front third, 8 winners middle third and 10 winners final third suggests a relatively even split, winners can come from anywhere is what this set of data tends to suggest).
Breaking things down a little, I looked at the effect of race distance on the data, splitting the 25 races into two separate groupings for analysis. The first group includes races of 2m 4f and shorter while the second group is made up of races of 2m 5f and further.
Here is the chart for the shorter races (13 races in all).
Things look a little different here than they did in the previous chart. This time, although the number of winners starting in the final third has remained similar to the whole sample (38% versus 40% in the whole sample), the number of winners racing prominently has reduced. The reduction there has seen an increase in the number of winners starting mid-division, if you like, in the middle third of the field.
Only two winners started off prominently in the first third while 5 of the 13 started out the back. Two of the meeting’s most spectacular ‘off the pace’ performances are in the ‘final third’ grouping. Relegate’s last to first display in the Bumper (the second season in a row a mare had achieved this feat following the remarkable effort of the ill-fated Fayonagh the previous year) was one while Penhill also came from last to first. Presenting Percy also came last to first but in a smaller field.
We also see the same pattern in the % of placed horses racing prominently versus those racing in the middle third. The starting prominently division has reduced from 44% to 33% while those starting in the middle third has increased from 37% to 41%. The number of placed horses starting in the final third over shorter distances versus the sample as a whole has also increased, from 19% to 26%.
The data suggests that, in comparison with longer races (chart below) a prominent early position is not as advantageous. There could be a variety of causes or explanations. As mentioned earlier, the sample is small and the data will have a random element to it. Logical explanations, borne from observation/experience, might include a suggestion that in the shorter races the early pace is simply too quick and the horses at the head of the pack tire. Why would they go off too quick? Generally these races will have a number of horses who like to be up with the pace. Getting that early position is more challenging in the highly competitive, larger fields of runners at Cheltenham and jockeys may have to go a bit quicker to secure and retain it.
Again, I’d stress that I’m not attempting to prove causation here. The data simply illustrate the facts of where the placed horses and winners were in the races at that early point in the race. The early position may or may not be correlated with finishing position, our sample size is too small to say.
Let’s look at the longer races now.
A different story. In the longer races more than 55% (versus 33% in the shorter races) of the placed horses were in the front third passing the stands first time while only 11% were in the final third (against 26% in the shorter races).
It is a slightly conflicting story for winners. Those racing prominently did better (% wise) over longer distances with 42% of the winners coming from this group (it was only 15% for shorter races) but we also saw an increase in the % of winners who started off steadily in the final third with 42% of these also successful (38% over shorter distances). Only 2 of the 12 winners were in the middle third of the field first time past the stands in these longer races.
Hurdles versus Chases
The final analysis was to split the data hurdles versus chases. Let’s start with the chart for hurdle races.
A very similar chart to the chart for shorter distance races (8 of the 13 hurdle races looked at feature in the data for both charts so we’d expect it to be fairly similar). Winners were relatively evenly spread, 3 from the first third, 5 from the middle third and 5 from the final third. Blow By Blow (in the Martin Pipe) was the only hurdler to lead passing the stands and come home in front at the finish. Penhill was the only hurdler to go last (passing stands first time) to first.
Of the placed horses middle third was the most successful location passing the stands first time with a relatively even split between the numbers racing prominently and in the rear.
Up front early was the place to be in the chases. 61% (the highest percentage in any group) of the placed horses in the chases were in the first third of the field passing the stands first time while only 12% were in the final third. Winners were evenly spread though, 4 winners from the first third of the field, 3 from the middle third and 4 from the final third.
Native River and Missed Approach produced the two front running chase performances of the week while Presenting Percy was the only one in last place passing the stands first time to go on to win a chase.
The final chart is quite an interesting one. Longer distance – chases only (two miles 5f and longer).
Only 7 races analysed here so a sample size that makes it increasingly likely we are looking at randomness but of interest surely that 65% of the horses (roughly two thirds 18/28) that finished first, second, third or fourth in these races took a prominent early position in them. Not a single winner of the 7 races passed the stands first time in a mid-division (middle third) slot but, although only one of the placed horses raced in the final third first time past the stands, three winners came from that final third grouping (Rathvinden, Presenting Percy and Pacha Du Polder).
What does it all mean? Not a lot probably. So many other factors come into play and the data sample is so small it is impossible to make any firm correlations between early field position and finishing position or to attempt to explain causation. Sectional times would obviously complement the above and we could start to look at field position in relation to actual speed/pace at key points in the race. Our data tells us nothing about the pace of the races and you could be pretty sure that the relationship between early race pace and early field position would provide a much more complete picture.
Maybe the over-arching message is the one we started off with from the very first chart. Winners can come from ANYWHERE!