This may sound disgracefully ungenerous but I believe that Ascot and British racing deserved to be an international laughing stock on Tuesday. Frankel, the country’s most exciting thoroughbred scrambled home in an apparently desperately muddle-paced showpiece and the world’s greatest race meeting was quite unable to provide any meaningful details. When will Britain take timing seriously?
To be exact, after Frankel crossed the line with an ever shortening stride, the search for an explanation had only the final time as statistical evidence. What had made his newly knighted trainer and all still sober racegoers raise their eyebrows in concern and confusion was dependent almost only on the naked eye and inevitably biased witness. At the core horseracing is no more and no less than equine athletics and yet we commentate and ON it without the most elementary of athletic analysis. Imagine the Olympic 1500 metres final next summer with Steve Cram giving you nothing but the final time and describing the pace merely by the hustle demonstrated by the leader.
But at Ascot (as everywhere else in Britain) all we had to assess the most fascinating and controversial race of the meeting was the fact that Frankel ran Ascot’s round mile in the impressive but not record time of 1 minute 39.24 seconds compared to the I minute 41.73 seconds it took him to cover the same trip on markedly softer ground in the Royal Lodge last September. So we have no proper answers to the question of just how much too fast a gallop did the elbow pumping Michael Hills set on the pacemaker Rerouted, how great an effort was or was not Tom Queally demanding of Frankel in pushing him in pursuit more than a furlong before the turn, and of how much his unbeaten partner was slowing down in the final furlong compared to his storming finish up the same straight last Autumn.
We are talking about sectional timing which has been used in America since World War II, is now available in every other leading country but which has been abandoned in Britain since over-elaborate experiments at Newmarket and Cheltenham a decade ago proved unpopular with participants and confusing to punters. The systems then mooted were those that give you the exact time and position of every horse at every time. But to mix metaphors, in comprehension terms we were running before we could walk. All we need is the leader’s time at the quarter mile poles. Have that and suddenly the actual commentary as well as the understanding changes.
No longer would the pace be described as “they seem to be going a good clip” and at last the penny would drop that since the final furlong is invariably the slowest run what you are actually watching is one horse stronger than the other as fatigue slows them both. For what it’s worth I believe the figures would show that Michael Hills set something of a Nunthorpe gallop on Rerouted and that Tom Queally, surprised by how well Frankel had settled, got over anxious at how far he was from the original “follow the pacemaker” plan and stoked the horse up too early only to find him slowing so dramatically that hand timing aces James Willoughby and Michael Tanner have clocked a 14 second final furlong. But what do they or I or anyone know?
Some may say all this does not matter but I contend that if racing is to try and maintain its relevance to a modern audience it has to bring itself up to date. All the promotions ever staged, all the jargon busting booklets ever printed, are pointless if the actual sport, the race at the centre, cannot hold itself up for modern analysis. If it continually fails to put emphasis on relevant data it should not be surprised that would-be watchers find it irrelevant in a world in which the sports fan gets told everything from the percentage of possession to the number of tackles to the speed of the second serve.
What timing offers are facts rather than subjective opinion. Once we heard that Canford Cliffs had clocked I minute 38.38 seconds (0.62 quicker than the Racing Post standard) for the straight mile of the opening Queen Anne Stakes, we didn’t need jockeys to tell us that the ground had not been over watered. When we heard that Prohibit had logged 59.50 secs for the Kings Stand (0.20 better than standard) we could guess that the leaders he cut down in that final furlong were weakening under the intensity of the gallop.
But even those final times are usually announced rather than displayed, and even when shown as they commendably were on some screens at Ascot and indeed on the BBC, they did not have meaningful comparisons and did not happen early enough. The first day at Ascot, and in particular those first three feature events, was British horse racing at its very best: a galloping card game set atop flying thoroughbreds in an arena to die for. And all the fun and the pageantry are worthless if the audience can’t delight in the way Richard Hughes trumped Peslier’s ace in the Queen Anne, and the way Jim Crowley never panicked as he worked Prohibit through the flying final stages of the Kings Stand.
This is much more than an anorak’s plea. It is central to British racing putting its house into comprehensible order. Even before the someone gets round to doing the sectionals every TV screen should display and interpret the winning time, every result should include it along with the distance and starting prices. A failure to do suggest that that those trying to modernize racing’s image don’t actually understand its primary fascination, that they assume packing in crowds in by promotions is a substitute to understanding, and that the public let alone the wider media will continue to take the sport seriously when it doesn’t do so itself.
One of the best bits of advice ever given when I started broadcasting was “never overestimate your audience’s knowledge nor underestimate their intelligence.” With its apathy about timing Ascot and British Racing are continuing to do both.