Time punters enjoyed sectional healing

The simple answer is no one has bothered to think too hard about it, least of all from the perspective of betting shop stools, where the occupant is expected to pay up and be quiet

I was sitting in an exam once, on the subject of industrial relations if I recall, when my tutor wandered by and shoved a note on to my desk. I had rather hoped for some blinding insight into the latest Employment Act.

I was sitting in an exam once, on the subject of industrial relations if I recall, when my tutor wandered by and shoved a note on to my desk. I had rather hoped for some blinding insight into the latest Employment Act.

Instead, there was a question. "What's going to win the Guineas?" The tutor was an Irishman, and through the year we had struck up a decent friendship based more on a shared love of horseracing than my abilities as a student of industrial relations. We both belonged to the same club, to that breed of lowest racing life-form known as the mug punter. And, as every inhabitant of the local betting shop will know, mug punters have to stick together.

Anyway, momentarily sidetracked from contemplation of strikes and trade unions, I wrote down my answer with a quite remarkable conviction. The return note was greeted with a raised eyebrow and a vague look of disdain, and I thought nothing more about it until later in the afternoon when Waterloo, ridden by Eddie Hide, won the 1,000 Guineas quite comfortably at decent odds. I wondered if my tutor had taken my advice.

This Guineas week, the mug punter is cast further adrift than ever, with only a couple of inconclusive trials and the sphinx-like utterances of a few jockeys and trainers, neither of whom number the enlightenment of the betting public among their priorities, as aids to buoyancy. It has always been the lot of the mug punter to finance a sport he barely understands. Yet, strangely, punters are an uncomplaining lot. Defeat will be followed by a frustrated scrumpling of a betting ticket and a swift return to the form guide, as if the mere act of study will produce some magical moment of clarity.

A jockey's reputation will be shredded like the old betting cards, but generally mug punters blame only themselves for their failure. They must have missed some vital clue to the winner's form. And, of course, the industry is happy to keep the punters in darkness, devoid of the basic information granted to almost every other punter in the world.

I doubt if many would have dallied too long over an excellent piece in the Racing Post by James Willoughby ­ who tips as Topspeed ­ in which he analysed the sectional speeds of all the winners at Newmarket's recent Craven meeting. In Australia, America and South Africa, the clock is the foremost aid to the hard-pressed punter.

In England, only Newmarket among turf courses has installed proper sectional-timing apparatus. In fact, it was only in recent decades that races were universally timed electronically at the finish, let alone furlong by furlong. Partly, that is due to the culture of the turf in this country, which until recently has outlawed change. Partly, too, it is due to the landscape. The variety of topography at British racetracks makes timing comparisons irrelevant, and even comparisons of speeds at different times of a race on the same course have to be judiciously interpreted.

British punters have been brought up to ignore the clock and rely on the naked eye. Yet accurate speed figures for a horse through a race can bring a whole new dimension to the hitherto subjective skill of reading a race. A well-judged race can be computed by the clock. A cock-up, ditto. The ideal way to ride a thoroughbred is to increase speed slowly through the length of a race. As a rule of thumb, the greater the variance in the speed of a horse during a race, the slower the time. Races can be won or lost as easily in the first 100 yards as the last furlong. But only sectional timings can prove the point.

Take, as Willoughby did, the performance of a horse called Spring Pursuit, who finished third to Nowell House in the Babraham Handicap over 12 furlongs. The figures show that the winner ran his quickest section from 10 to 8 furlongs and that Spring Pursuit, who led for much of the way, accelerated off that early pace ­ the sign of a decent horse ­ and only paid the price for expending too much early energy when he was caught close to home. As the Post summarised: "Held up mid-division, progress to lead 3f out, hard ridden and headed over 1f out, faded."

Shrewd judges of a race might have been able to dissect those subtleties and act accordingly, by backing Spring Pursuit in the Great Metropolitan at Epsom last Wednesday. Most would not have bothered. With the help of sectional timings, an art can be backed up by at least the pretensions of science to the benefit of the ordinary mug punter. Held up longer by his jockey at Epsom to conserve his energy, Spring Pursuit ­ as forecast by Topspeed ­ duly romped home by five lengths, comfortably turning the tables on his former conqueror, Nowell House.

It might help punters further in their deliberations to know that Primo Valentino, winner of the Abernant Stakes, posted the only speed over 40mph for a furlong and blasted through three consecutive furlongs at only a marginally slower speed before tiring markedly and understandably near the finish. A classic graph of an over-eager but deeply talented six-furlong sprinter.

In winning the six-furlong Stetchworth Maiden Stakes, Inchcape's speeds, furlong by furlong, were: 28.9mph, 39.3, 38.5, 37.8, 39.6, 36.8. In accelerating by almost 2mph from two furlongs out off a strong pace, Inchcape, in Willoughby's words, "delivered the most powerful turn of foot of the week". Inchcape, in other words, has talent to spare.

So why have punters been denied access to this key area of information for so long? Aidan O'Brien has sectional timings on his gallops, so does Michael Stoute. But neither would tell you the time of day on a racetrack. Trainers, with some notable exceptions, still regard the betting public as barbarians at the gate and the majority of journalists as dangerous fifth columnists.

Nor is it obviously in the interests of the bookmakers to furnish their clients with the sort of information which, in the long term, might prove detrimental to their profit margins. It is fertile ground for conspiracy theorists, if only racing could be presumed to be so well organised. The simple answer, I suspect, is because no one has really bothered to think too hard about it, least of all from the perspective of the betting-shop stool, whose occupant is expected to pay up and keep quiet.

There is, at least, a glimmer of hope. Ascot looks set to install timing apparatus soon, and a radical new breed of clerks of the course promises a more enlightened future. Do not hold your breath. And, by the way, I passed that exam.

–––

Some good news for Oxford, home of the worst team in the Football League this season, according to the locals at least. By reaching the final of the Playsafe Railtrack Trophy at the Millennium Stadium recently, the boys of Headington Middle School completed a remarkable treble. Last year, the under-11s played on consecutive days at Wembley and Old Trafford in the finals of different trophies, so, I ask, how many others can claim to have played on all three grounds? The odd Liverpool player perhaps or, strangely, a few England rugby union internationals. Exclusive company indeed.

Representing Oxford United's football in the community programme, Headington successfully defended their Railtrack title on their fourth visit to the final, cementing their claim to be the best under-11 team in the land. They certainly have the most successful caretaker coach in football. Their coach, Ernie Smith, is the school's caretaker. Oxford United should give him the job permanently.

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