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What is the point of sectional timing in horse racing?

Sectional timing has finally become a thing in British racing having been a staple around the globe for - literally - decades. In this post, we'll explore what sectional timing is and, more to the point, for what it can be used in the racing and betting context.

What is sectional timing?

Sectional timing is, as the name suggests, a record of how fast something happened within a part of a race. In Formula 1 or track and field, this would be lap times within an overall race time; in skiing or cycling time trials, it would be the time a competitor took within a specific segment - or section - of the race.

In all cases, it is a snippet of information about a chunk of a race which can be used to broaden our understanding of how a competitor is performing, or has performed. In and of itself, sectional timing is no more than that.

By collecting this information for lots of similar events, however,  we can start to build up a picture of how to do things optimally, which inevitably means how to win more often.

Why bother with sectional timing?

Let's take a stupid example. Like, a really stupid example. Let's say I was going to run a marathon (already pretty stupid), and let's further say that I decide to sprint the first 200 metres. How do you suppose the remaining 26 miles 185 yards are going to go for me? Not well; I've blown much of my available energy before the race has even started.

Now let's take a slightly more real world example, the 2018 Arkle Chase won by Footpad. Even if you don't watch the video, much of what you need to know about this race is shown in the still image below. Petit Mouchoir (purple Gigginstown colours) and Saint Calvados (white, blue, red Brooks family colours) did something not far removed from my preposterous marathon analogy above.

Guess what happened to the 4/1 third- and 11/4 second-favourites respectively?

They were absolutely whacked by the finish, allowing Footpad - in the green, running at a much more sensible, and sustainable, speed - to win as he liked. Second home was Brain Power, white and black colours, and also restrained away from the duel ahead.

The two scrapping protagonists finished 15 lengths third and 53 lengths fourth of five, only beating a totally outclassed rival who jumped poorly.

After the race, the media went mad about Footpad's demolition job: here we had the new Champion Chase favourite, the next generation of untouchable speed chaser...

Only we didn't. And, with a stopwatch (or even a bit of common sense in a setup as blatant as this), it was obvious that this was not a coronation procession, but rather a case of one very capable horse benefiting from the lunacy inefficiency of two other very capable horses and their human support acts.

Footpad did go on to win the equivalent Grade 1 at Punchestown as the 2/5 favourite on his next start. But there he beat a broken Petit Mouchoir - who'd also rocked up at Aintree in between times - and a gaggle of Grade 3 (at best) rivals. Thereafter he was beaten on all three starts in what should have been his breakthrough season in non-novice company. On each occasion he was sent off favourite, twice at evens or shorter. Connections ultimately swerved Altior and the Champion Chase in favour of the Ryanair, in which Footpad finished a distant eighth of twelve.

Even allowing for a solid race in the middle of that trio, he was still beaten by an 11-year-old called Simply Ned that day.

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Back to sectional timing, and what it would have told us about that race. In point of fact, it told us that Footpad ran extremely fast. But he also ran extremely efficiently as a result of sitting off the crazy fractions set by Petit Mouch and Saint C. He was able to maintain his consistently quick pace where those two could not sustain their overly rapid early dash.

Subsequently, in more sensibly run contests, Footpad was less able to bring his high-cruising one pace to bear: the notion that he quickened in the Arkle is plain wrong, he merely slowed down far less markedly than his main rivals on the prevailing heavy ground.

But still we've not got to the nub: why bother with sectional timing?

Because, at the most fundamental level, it helps us to understand what happened far more reliably than our eyes. Sectional information acts as a permanent record where our eyes / brains have a more temporary or transient ability to capture, store and re-process such intel across a wide range of races.

And, most importantly, the collection and collation of this timing data enables us to make inferences that were hitherto not possible, or at least to make them with more certainty and/or confidence.

If we know that an unexposed two-year-old was all at sea early but covered the last two furlongs in a very quick, relatively, time that is worth noting. All the more so if the horse in question didn't win the race and may not be obvious to the betting public.

If we know that an exposed handicapper invariably runs his best races when recording even fractions off an overly fast pace, and the pace map suggests plenty of early zip today, that is very much worth noting.

If we know a horse like Footpad had a perfect setup to bring his A game, and that such a scenario is unlikely to present itself too often, we can risk taking a chunk out of the market by betting against him subsequently. [By the way, I really like Footpad; for him to do what he did in the Arkle having absolutely walked through one of the fences on the way round was awesome. But my affection for the game and its warriors resides in a separate compartment - let's call it my heart - to the one from where my punting intent manifests, and rarely the twain doth meet].

How can I use sectional timing?

As with all pieces of the puzzle, the most important thing to say is that you don't have to use sectional data to make good betting decisions. If you currently get on just fine using form profiling, trainer patterns, pace/draw, or any other methodology, feel free to carry on regardless.

But, just as I have long banged the drum for the value of a greater awareness of early pace in races, I think sectional information takes us to another level of comprehension of what happened and why - and, far more importantly, perhaps, what might (or might not) happen today as a consequence of what we understand of the previous days.

If you already use the geegeez pace maps, sectional timing information will help you understand more fully what happened. It will contextualise one horse's performance in the race macro. And that will help you make better, more informed betting decisions.

Why are you telling me all this?

Two reasons, one narrow and one broad. Broadly speaking, knowledge is power when betting. A company called Total Performance Data has been recording sectional timing information for more than three years at some of the all-weather tracks. They have more recently extended their coverage to all of Sky Sports Racing's tracks (with the exception of Ascot).

Racing TV's umbrella company, Racecourse Media Group (RMG), has - via its own supplier, CourseTrack - also been gathering sectional timing information since late summer.

A year from now sectional timing data will be available for all tracks in UK (with the possible exception of Chelmsford) and, via the specialist racing channels first - but with some noteworthy interjections in terrestrial coverage - the language of sectionals and their implications will find their way into the conversation.

Five years from now, sectional data will be mainstream. Talk of how races will be run will be fundamental cornerstones of the form debate, rather than the last word before a race goes off: "xyz is lining up at the front of the field and he looks like he might lead".

The more narrow point is that geegeez.co.uk will soon start publishing sectional timing information in its Gold racecards. It won't clutter the view for those who have no intention of engaging with it (yet), but it will be there for Gold subscribers of a more curious / time-based nature.

Here are some artist's impressions of how things might look:

Full Result

 

Full Form

 

Cards Inline

 

What next?

At some point before Christmas, sectional timing information for Total Performance Data / Sky Sports Racing tracks will appear within the Geegeez Gold racecards. It will be switched 'off' as default, but with options in your My Geegeez profile to turn it on, either in visual or data format.

Sectional data will be part of the existing Gold provision at least until the end of 2020, after which it may become a paid 'add on' for those who derive value from it. (This content does not come cheap, even before the months of development time/cost have been factored in, and it's been something of a gamble to take it on. That is my problem, of course, and we'll see how things go, but I want to be clear at the outset about the potential to charge separately for this at some point far down the line. Fair enough?)

Alongside the release of sectional data on site, there will be a number of explainer videos and a section (no pun intended) in the User Guide to help you get your feet under the table.

Thereafter, we'll have regular editorial picking up on races of interest from the previous week or fortnight. Sometimes these will be big races, and sometimes they will be races which might have otherwise snuck under the radar.

Super Important

One really important point in closing: I am not by any manner of means expert in inferring sectional content. I know plenty about running lines and points of call from my exposure to US racing, and I have got up together on such as finishing speed percentages and pars more recently as a result of grappling with their inner workings to help my developers.

I am still learning how best to infer the data, and how best to use it for punting purposes. To that end, I very much welcome comments from those who maybe already use this intel from other sources. And, also to that end, I very much welcome your tolerance if/when I/we make a mistake in presentation.

When the sectional content arrives on site it will be in BETA mode. That means it might be imperfect, and I welcome your support in resolving any glitches.

This is an innovative new frontier as far as British racing - and geegeez.co.uk coverage of it from a form perspective - is concerned. I'm excited to see where it takes us...

Matt