Man with time on his side

Ian Davies has his card marked by racing's most respected clockwatcher
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"You only worry about the time when you are in jail," the trainer Luca Cumani said after Celestial Storm had failed to impress on the clock when winning Goodwood's March Stakes in 1985. Chris Wright begs to differ. He worries about the time . . . all the time.

Wright works for Timeform, the highly respected purveyors of racing data, and is the man behind their computer timefigures, originally devised by the company's founder, the legendary punter Phil Bull. Wright was Bull's protege and, since Bull's death in 1989, has compiled all Timeform's timefigures.

Whereas Timeform ratings (or any other kind of form ratings, for that matter) measure horses in terms of their performances against each other, timefigures measure the performance of horses in terms of time.

Wright explains. "When I receive the results of a day's racing the first thing I do is use Timeform's set of standard times for each distance at each racecourse to calculate the raw timefigures that each horse has recorded that day. All races are rated using five furlongs as a benchmark, for which we use a conversion rate when assessing horses of 0.4 seconds equals 1lb and 4lbs equals a length.

"By looking at the raw timefigures and using a mathematical calculation to compare them with the Timeform ratings of the horses involved, it then becomes possible to calculate a going allowance which tells you what impact the going has had on each time.

"There are other factors to consider. We take Met Office readings on the wind direction and can calculate by vector analysis how much that affects a particular race. For example, a following wind in a straight five furlongs race will have a different effect from that it will have on a race on a turning mile when the field is racing into the wind for maybe four furlongs.

"Moreover, the ground can differ on the straight course from that on the round track. By splitting up such races and assessing them separately, we can sometimes produce a more credible set of figures."

It all sounds very impressive but, while the clock cannot lie, can it mislead? If five races on a card are slowly run, will that not inevitably flatter the one that is not?

"Experience teaches you to avoid that," Wright says. "Recently, I was looking at the results from Musselburgh, where by far and away the fastest time over the day was the amateur riders' handicap in which the winner Swan At Whalley - and the next six home as well - appeared, at first glance, to have recorded exceptional timefigures, 10lb and upwards better than anything they had every achieved before.

"But experience tells you that the chances of a bunch of older sprint handicappers simultaneously improving by so much are extremely remote. In such instances, you use your judgement. A few days later Swan At Whalley ran and was beaten and I therefore feel vindicated in not giving the horse an exceptional figure at Musselburgh."

Wright says a lot of nonsense is talked about times. Some people think times can only be fast when the ground is firm. and comments from TV commentators like, "the ground is riding firm here this afternoon and the times are all very fast", or it's very soft here and all the times are slow", irritate him.

A time, Wright explains, can only be deemed fast or slow in relation to other times at the same racecourse on the same afternoon. A time can be very fast, considering the ground is heavy, or very slow, considering the ground is firm.

Wright rates the 1985 Derby winner, Slip Anchor, as one of the most exceptional horses he has rated. "He recorded a figure of 143 at Epsom" he says. Other great performances came from the 1990 Nunthorpe Stakes winner, Dayjur, who notched a 142, and Celtic Swing, who was credited with a 138 when he won the 1994 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster.

So, how come Celtic Swing failed to win the 1995 2,000 Guineas then?

"Timefigures, like all factors you evaluate when assessing a future horse race, have to be assessed in the context in which they took place," answers Wright. "Celtic Swing achieved his 138 on soft going over Doncaster's round mile in October as a two-year-old - after weight-for-age had been taken into account (Timeform reckon the average two-year-old is 21lb inferior to the average four-year-old over a mile in late October).

"The weight-for-age scale informs that two-year-olds improve by an average of 12lb between October and the 2,000 Guineas when they are three the following May, but there are enormous fluctuations within that mean average. Some horses improve by much more, while others don't improve at all or even deteriorate. That's one reason why three-year-old handicaps don't all end in multiple dead-heats.

"Moreover, while the Doncaster race was run on soft ground, the 2,000 Guineas was contested on a fast surface. No horse is guaranteed to reproduce a timefigure on different going or over a different distance come to that. Hence it comes as no great surprise that Celtic Swing could only manage a 130 (still a smart figure) and went down by a head to Pennekamp in that year's 2,000 Guineas."

So what are the best betting mediums for time enthusiasts? Well, while he is as susceptible to the odd ante-post punt as anyone else - he has backed Dazzle for the 1997 1,000 Guineas after the filly notched a timefigure of 118 when winning Newmarket's Cherry Hinton Stakes last week - Wright is particularly keen on all-weather racing.

"The going never varies and the races are usually truly run," he says. Timefigures are at their most useful when they enable the time student to be one step ahead of his form-book poring, collateral form-line obsessed rival.

On 2 March a three-year-old called Le Sport won a moderate Class E handicap from some mostly out-of-form rivals on the Fibresand at Wolverhampton. Most form students did not have a clue how to rate the form. Wright did.

Le Sport had recorded what, for that grade of racing, was an exceptional Timefigure of 91. When he turned out again in a Class C handicap at Wolverhampton the following Wednesday, Wright backed him at 5-1.

Did Le Sport win? Is Michael Portillo a Tory? Le Sport won on the bridle. By eight lengths.