WFA, F1, And The Best Horse In The Race… Discuss

It's an age old debate, dear reader, and one which myself and a very knowledgeable racing buddy - Rob Pacitto - were having last Friday whilst drinking and punting at Epsom. Actually, strictly speaking, it was whilst drinking, as we had retired to the bar at the end of the Oaks and Coronation Cup proceedings...

Anyway, we were arguing about the effect of weight in horse races and, latterly, the effect of weight for age. My learned friend has clearly mulled this for a day or three, as I returned home last evening to a considered (and occasionally profane) response, which I've reproduced below. Beneath that, I've added some of my own thoughts. And beneath that, i.e. in the comments section, I'd welcome your thoughts on what is something of an insoluble (unsolvable?) conundrum...

From Rob:

Hi Matt, I hope you are well. Could not find your personal email
address (recently switched over to an iMac, don't do it, they're shit)
so went to geegeez and found this one!!

I have been musing over our debate last Friday on weight-for-age and
handicap weights generally.

I have turned to one of my other favourite sports, motor racing, for
some clues.

Let's take a typical circuit, e.g. Silverstone, which is about 5km
long and takes about 90 seconds to lap.

Now, on this sort of circuit, a Formula 1 car, which has a weight
(well, mass actually but let's not be picky) of about 650kg, suffers a
drop in pace of about 0.02 seconds per lap for every extra kg of fuel
carried. This is a fact, with any amount of evidence to back it up
from all the F1 teams measuring this 'fuel effect' obsessively in the
quest for an optimum qualifying and race strategy. Actually, that
figure is a bit on the low side, but I don't want to exaggerate this
to support my argument, so let's stick with that conservative figure
of 0.02 seconds per lap per kg of fuel.

Now it just so happens an F1 car has a very similar weight to a
racehorse. So let's take a typical horse running over 2.5km (just over
a mile and a half). How much could we expect his performance to be
affected by 1kg extra on his back? Well, if the F1 figures translated
directly you would expect a drop in performance of 0.01 seconds over
that 2.5km. But then the horse is much, much less powerful (F1 car
about 800hp, horse somewhere in the order of 1hp, honestly) and so
will be much more affected by the burden of weight.

The horse is also
travelling much less quickly (about one fifth the average speed) so
the extension to the overall time for the horse would be greater than
the car. Furthermore, the horse is affected by fatigue, whereas the
car never gets tired!!

There is no point me trying to calculate a real figure for how much
the horse is slowed by the extra kilogram, given the imponderables
above, but traditional handicapping suggests it would cost the horse
about a length or 0.2 seconds and my gut feel is that's a pretty good

If correct, a horse carrying 5kg (11lb) more might suffer by
1 second, or 5 lengths. Obviously this is all conjecture, but my
feeling is that the F1 example proves a sensitive relationship between
speed and weight which should not be ignored. You said on Friday that
in the US they almost discard weight, which I know to be a fact.
However, it is also a fact that they are talking bollocks. Well, not
necessarily a fact, but a serious possibility. And anyway, since when
did the US horse racing community become an expert on this matter?!

As for weight for age, well my argument is a rock solid one I feel. If
weight matters (and the existence of the weight for age scale is a bit
of a giveaway there!!) then wfa should be scrapped immediately!!! Let
all horse run on their merits and the best horse win I say. Take Sea
the Stars, a fine winner of the Derby on Saturday I am sure you will
agree. If he runs in the Eclipse he will receive 11lb (yep, that's
5kg!!) from the older horses.

Which is crazy, as it gives him
significant advantage. Again if handicappers are to be believed it's
worth about maybe 1.2 seconds, which is getting on for six lengths.
This skews the results of championship races to a ridiculous extent
with the result that a) the best horse on the day does not always win
which is unsatisfactory, b) the 'winner' is unfairly lauded as some
super horse, thus bringing in the dollars at stud when the vanquished
older horses might have done more for the breed and c) leads to the
3yo being retired early with 'nothing left to prove' when in fact he
has it all to prove.

Based on the above, some 'great' horses that would have lost their
defining race include:

Warning (1988 Sussex), would have been trounced by Then Again
Rodrigo de Triano (1992 Champion Stakes), would have been collared by
Lammtarra (1995 King George), would have been beaten easily by
Strategic Choice (sorry I was wrong on Fri, Pentire was a 3yo too in
that race!)
Bosra Sham (1996 Champion Stakes), would have been whooped out of
sight by Halling
Galileo (2001 King George), would have been pummelled by Fantastic Light
Attraction (2004 Sun Chariot Stakes), would have been pipped by Chic
Authorized (2007 International Stakes), would have been emabarrassed
by Dylan Thomas

Etc. etc.!!

Clearly the trip, going, course layout, race pace, etc. etc. make a
lot of difference too, but don't underestimate the effect of a few
kg!! Look at me, just a tiny bit overweight and I'm a full 20 seconds
off Usain Bolt over 200m.

I rest my case (for now!!)



From Matt:

Hi Rob

Excellent email, full of skewed logic, as I've come to expect from your good self... 😉

Let's take your points in order:

Firstly, regarding the F1 comparison, a Formula 1 car is honed for aerodynamism and speed. It can go 'balls out' as fast as it can, from the green light to the chequered flag. More weight in a car that is traveling flat out MUST slow it down. This is the law of physics, as there is no physical exertion element.

That is to say, the car does not feel the effects of fatigue, nor does it have to manage it's energies over the full race distance. And the horse does not have a fuel gauge for the jockey to judge how much energy his mount has remaining.

At the end of an F1 race, pretty much all of the cars have pretty much no petrol left. The same cannot be said of horse race winners. Very often, they have surplus fuel - let's call it energy - which means they could have potentially won by further.

Furthermore, F1 cars are broadly homogenous (with the notable exception of the ridiculously advantaged Brawn squad this year) and, as such, the effect of the burden of fuel weight will be consistent. This is not true of racehorses.

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Big animals can more comfortably lug big weights, small animals are less adept at this. That's pure logic there!

My point in all of this is that although it is difficult to argue against the effect of weight in a Formula 1 race (and indeed I'm not), for the reasons highlighted above, that does not translate to equine racing.

In fact, moving away from cars and back to horses, according to your argument, a horse carrying 2lbs less for a half length defeat should habitually overcome his vanquisher next time they meet. But this is evidently not the case.

Nick Mordin conducted some research into this point, and looked at 222 randomly selected races where two horses re-opposed each other, having finished in consequent positions last time out (i.e. 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th, etc), and where they finished within two lengths of each other.

He discovered that where the winner carried more weight next time, it won again 73 out of 126 times - or 58 percent. And where the winner carried the same weight or less weight next time, it won again 56 times out of 96, or... 58 percent!

On average, the additional weight concession by the winner to the loser was 2.45lbs, or - in conventional weight for lengths theory - 1 1/4 lengths. Given that all of the races chosen had horses finishing within no more than two lengths of each other, and many of them with much smaller margins, you'd expect the majority of placings to be reversed between the two re-opposing beasts.

And the rate of defeat was exactly the same, irrespective of a rise, drop or maintenance of the weight differential. Whilst the exactness of that figure may be coincidental, its easy to see why I - along with Mordin and many others - believe that small amounts of weight have little or no bearing on a horse.

Of course, if a horse is lugging a stone more than when he last met the other animal, it is reasonable to expect this to slow it down (though it will not speed the beaten horse up!).

Now... let's move on to weight for age. You say, "If
weight matters (and the existence of the weight for age scale is a bit
of a giveaway there!!)"...

First of all, I don't agree with your logic that because a rule is in place it means that the rule is correct. Specifically, because there is a rule around weight for age, that doesn't mean weight matters. Rather, it means weight has historically been perceived to matter.

It is a perception, and is still the majority view in this country. Which provides great opportunities for us contrarian thinkers. As an example, before I finally broach the subject of weight for age, is it not counterintuitive that the top weight in handicaps wins the most races, and the second top weight wins the next most races. And, guess what, the third top weight is the next most successful runner... I've reproduced the performance of handicappers relative to the weight they carried in all handicap races between 2003 and 2007 (need a data update bring the rest - don't have it!):

Weight Rank - Descending (handicps)

CATEGORY                     WINS    RUNS  STRIKE% LSP     LSP%     VSP%

1st (top weight)             2258   18328  12.32 -3239.09   -17.67   -11.54

2nd                          1646   14097  11.68 -3029.56   -21.49   -12.02

3rd                          1527   13938  10.96 -2402.64   -17.24   -12.78

4th                          1478   14130  10.46 -2848.02   -20.16   -11.01

5th                          1305   13855   9.42 -2709.23   -19.55   -14.60

6th                          1190   13752   8.65 -3099.29   -22.54   -15.78

7th                           983   12986   7.57 -3169.08   -24.40   -18.73

8th                           870   12176   7.15 -2697.04   -22.15   -18.08

9th                           680   10749   6.33 -3315.85   -30.85   -20.04

10th+                        1943   38195   5.09 -11704.58   -30.64   -21.59

Notice the beautifully linear relationship between the horses' 'weight rank' and its win percentage. Surely if weight mattered in the way you say, the lower weights would win more races, no?

OK, weight for age. The reason for WFA is clearly predicated on the relative maturity of a horse and its corresponding physical growth. There is little doubt that Sea The Stars as a yearling couldn't beat my beloved Night Orbit when the latter was a three year old (quiet at the back!). However, there is also little doubt that once horses reach their classic year - i.e. three years old - they have become much more akin to their adult body shape.

You regularly hear commentators say that a horse has 'scope' (i.e. potential to grow physically) and will be a better 3 year old, but almost never would they suggest a horse has 'scope' to be a better 4 or even 5 year old.

I believe this is because, in flat racing at least, horses are physically mature for the job at hand by their third year. And so... drumroll please... I actually agree with you that the Derby winner should carry the same weight as his older opposition in the Eclipse.

More generally, I believe that three year olds should get no weight concession from older horses. However, due to their position on the growth spurt curve, I do believe that two year olds should still get a concession from older horses. It is a joy - for me at least - to see the likes of Kingsgate Native mix it with the battle hardened sprinters whilst still in their juvenile season.

I do concede that when 2yo's get weight for age, the best horse doesn't necessarily win, and I also absolutely agree that a lot of stallions have retired on a half-truth about their relative merits. Surely this presents an opportunity for the more astute breeder to pay less at stud for the best horse (who, due to an unfair defeat, is considered 'unfashionable').

[Note, the above is when the vanquished lugged much more weight, like eleven pounds, not two or three pounds more]

One last point about breeding. In 2008, the leading flat sires were Galileo, Danehill Dancer and Montjeu. The latter pair were both campaigned (albeit sparingly) at 4 years old.

This year's leading sire, Cape Cross (Sea The Stars' daddy), actually raced as a 5yo.

Ultimately, I do agree that it's preposterous that the Derby winner should get almost a stone in the Eclipse. However, given that his best trip is likely to be 1m2f, and he's likely to progress as a result of experience (as opposed to physical maturity), Sea The Stars would be a very likely type in that race.

There is one point that I've not touched on in any of the above, which I think is the most important of all. In human terms, we consider it to be the defining element amongst top athletes in any sport. I believe it is also true of racehorses.

And that is the will to win. Many horses overcome weight increments through sheer tenacity, personality, and professionalism. Like we peoply types, some of them are just better equipped mentally for the demands of their sport. And this 'between the ears' factor can amount to the best part of a stone for the better in the breed.

I'll rest it there (for now).

Looking forward to Round Two at Glorious Goodwood already! (I know the train journey is horrendous, but don't bring the car!)



So there you have it. Weight does, or doesn't, have a bearing on the outcome of races. And weight for age is clearly anachronistic and should be abolished. Or should it?

I'd love to know what you think on a subject that will run throughout the Summer, as this most exceptional of Classic horses takes on the 'big boys'...

Leave a comment (it can be as long or short as you like), and add to the debate.


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27 replies
  1. Leo says:

    Hi Matt,
    I think 2 factors have a big bearing on events.
    1) Class and 2) Will to win. 2 examples last Sat here.
    In a Group 1 the top weight had 60kg (9st 4) and
    barrier 18 on a bog heavy track over 1400 m ( 7 f) and
    was clearly the class horse of the field having won its
    2 previous group 1 races. Got up by a head after
    looked beaten at the 1f. Class and will to win prevailed.
    Example 2.
    In a listed race on a heavy track the winner
    was up 2kg (4.4 lbs) for winning its last run and was
    not fancied because of its extra weight but won
    running away. The handicapper has not got to it yet
    and the horse has a great will to win.
    W.F.A. I think it should be abolished. ( Shock horror)
    The weights can change from one month to the next
    without the horses having another run.

    Regards from Down Under.

  2. David Wilkinson says:


    I was always taught that adding weight to winners will EVENTUALLY slow them down, but, taking weight off losers will not NECCESSARILY speed them up.


    David Wilkinson

  3. bob marsden says:

    hi pal great debate an ex trainer pal of mine used to say wieght will stop trains….. sorry i cant be tecnical like you and your chums keep up your great banter yours in sport … bob marsden

  4. Terry says:

    A very interesting debate, of which both sides have balanced views. The one point I will take up is your mention that bigger horses can carry weight better than small animals. In general you would be expected to be correct but it is not a given that larger horses are stronger. Just as with humans there is many a small guy with a lot more strength than a bigger fellow. Apart from that I can follow your side of the discussion with more faith.

  5. KeithW says:

    Adrian Massey’s website offers some sensible comments on weight,whose burden (no pun) is:
    In flat racing the weights carried make little difference since they are low, the distances are short and there are no obstacles.
    In NH racing weights make a lot of difference since they are high,the distances long and there are obstacles:horses with low weights often beat better horses in handicaps.

  6. Stuart says:

    I have had very minimal insight into the workings of a racing stable way back with Arthur Thomas at Lanark Racecourse, and weight was a big issue in the stable, but this had a lot to do with the stature of the horse that was in the stable (mostly small). Since that time I firmly believe that the smaller the horse the more negative effect increasing weight has on its performance. Perhaps another angle to add to the mix?



  7. Geoff says:

    I had a similar discussion with my dad about 40 years ago with the following conclusions.

    1 the top weight wins a large percentage of races because it is the best horse and probably loves racing and likes to lead.

    2 weight increases are usually given because the horse has demonstrated improved form and how know how much improvement there will be and therefore how long before the additional weight takes its toll.

    3 carrying an extra 7lbs will have more effect over 2 mile than 5 furlongs

    4 it is difficult to place much reliance on weight changes as

    a trainers target horses to particular races and courses

    b horses have preferences, left hand tracks, right hand tracks, soft,good or firm going, nice weather, styles of riding, whip response, whip aversion.

    c horses have different recovery periods. A 5 furlong winner is often brought out within a few days or even the following day as the form is short lived but a 2 miler may take 2 weeks or more to recover from the exertions.

    d probably not weight related but age can have an effect as well. Why do 7 and 8 year olds win the cheltenham Gold Cup but it takes a 9-12 year old to win the Grand national? On this subject and weight Garrison Savannah won the gold cup carrying 12.00 beating The Fellow, Desert Orchid an cool ground but was only second in the National a few weeks later carrying about 10.9?

    In fact with so many imponderables I think we should give in and use my mothers double letter system(horses with two names beginning with the same letter e,g Spanish Steps (she got 50/1 on the nanny for that one)

  8. Chris says:

    Hi Matt,
    Great debate, and probably one that will never be conclusively decided!
    I do believe that what is between the ‘horses ears’ is a factor that is so often over looked, the will to win. Nick Mortin’s work on re-opposing horses is very interesting, but again overlooks or more likely ignores the psychology of the horse. Horses are primarily herding animals and in the wild are lead by a dominant herd leader and they have a very strict order of merit within the herd. This basic instinct is often over looked when analysing the potential outcome of a race, particularly when there are a couple or more re-opposing horses in the race. Beating a rival animal previously elevates that horse within the herd above the beaten animal, so that next time they meet the beaten animal is instinctively or psychologically beaten before the race starts due to the order of merit within the herd. Although this is not always the case as horses mature their instinct to become the herd leader also heightens and in older horses the need to be herd leader diminishes. All the same it is an area that I looked at some time ago, and this debate may just get me reaching for the horse psychology books again!

  9. Alan says:

    Hi Matt,
    My firstpost, not first past the–
    My take on weight, is it must matter because horses “dropped a few pounds”, seem to improve furlongs.
    Actually I think weight is hype, another excuse for bookies, trainers, and pundits, to confuse the punter with, and a ready made excuse for winning or not winning. In Handicaps.
    Stakes and up should be a small penalty for winners of better races.
    I believe the only fair handicapping system would be to weight horses for prize money won, all maidens level.
    The only consistent factor in handicaps, apart from better class animals entering them, is my few quid seems to stop them in their tracks.
    Great column,

  10. Charles says:

    it seems that distance up to a mile the increase in weight has very little influence – or none? – Charles

  11. oliver mann says:

    You say “Surely if weight mattered,in the way you say,the lower weights would win more ? ”
    Cannot see the logic of that at all…….surely the reason for Handicapping is to “attempt” to give each animal an equal opportunity to win ( Trainer,Track, Jockey, owner etc not withstanding.
    So the weight “matters” to achieve this aim…the handicapper finds this difficult enough without entering into the other variables, some of which are mentioned above……but patently weight “matters”……certainly different physiques can mean it mattering more to some than others….but it still “matters.”

    Oliver Mann

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Olly

      I didn’t say it didn’t matter – rather I said small amounts of weight don’t matter. When horses are running in their right class (i.e. handicap bracket), the highest weighted horse wins the most often, and so on down to the lowest weighted horse winning the least often. Weight therefore does matter – but in a counterintuitive way. Less weight equals less chance of winning a handicap.


  12. Bruce Anderson says:


    Very interesting. I feel that perhaps a complete overhaul of WFA allowances would change some things but not all.

    F1: I have not heard of any driver regularly “being a holdup merchant”. Ther are many “head-waiters” in the racing game. The most unlucky Derby loser in the last 20/25 years must be Dancing Brave. He finished with plenty of speed left. If all horses went full bore from flag fall the formbook would look completely different.

  13. Alan says:

    My grandad always said that they don’t give top weight to donkeys and your stats prove that to some extent. One factor missing is always going some horses are better on certain types of going irrespective of weight. So whist weight matters going is a biiger factor for me.

  14. Jez says:

    Hi Matt,
    Interesting discussion, to which I’ll add my tuppence:
    WFA – as all animals share a common birthday, there will be a variance of development at any stage of the season (as you mentioned) which covers a two (and sometimes longer) year period, for 2 & 3 year olds. This does seem to give an advantage to an “early” 3 year old over 4+ year olds at the beginning of the season but diminishes as they take advantage, win and gain weight penalties for those wins. It does allow the later developing animals, that haven’t won, a chance further into the season, when the 4+ year olds usually seem to regain dominance (with the usual racing press coverage questioning the “quality” of those earlier classic generation winners). The “early” 3 year old winners will now only compete in cherry picked Black Type races whilst the nearly-came animals compete at a lower level.
    To abandon WFA would disadvantage and almost certainly reduce entries of 3 year olds to races such as the Eclipse – were the penalties for wins to erode the WFA allowances of the early 3 year olds winners to a par with their elders, whilst still allowing the later developers a chance of competing, then that would be more equitable.
    The abolition of WFA would, apart from for a very select few, result in all 2 year old, all 3 year old and all 4+ year old Group and above races – surely not something any of us want to see?

    For general handicap racing, the enormous number of variables that have to be taken into account when allotting a handicap mark (for us, the punters, to calculate) versus the standard methodology of “taking a line through” various animals to produce a final figure is, quite frankly, unsatisfactory. Without sectional timings, allowance for going etc., etc., which would still involve an element of guesswork, the handicap marks tend to produce a system whereby good horses can never win (they place with regularity – and get raised for doing so) and the contra effect of animals, improving whilst running within themselves, notching up a string of wins whilst going up several stone (Yes, the best horse won, but it was running with a disproportionate advantage to the rest of the field).
    To summarize a long post: WFA in group racing should be on a sliding scale that diminishes to zero by, I’d guess, about the end of July – whilst winning 3 year old animals in group company have their WFA dropped at an accelerated rate.
    The handicapping system, for our run of the mill fare, should be overhauled, sectional timings made a mandatory requirement, the basis made more scientific and the methodology less opaque.

  15. oliver mann says:


    You are, of course, quite right….top weights win more often than their sheer numbers ratio….perhaps this is due to the limitations on maximum weights placed on handicappers by the formulators of the race conditions.


  16. Jon says:

    A crucial factor in NH races is whether the track is tight or not. There’s quite well known, very simple and hugely profitable, free system on a certain well-known site. Here it is (I can vouch for the results, as I saw each selection posted many years ago on the old Bet365 racing forum):

    ‘A profitable system which involves betting to win on topweights in all NH handicap races run over a trip of less than 3 miles on a tight track (for a list of tight tracks please refer to the NH Track Matrix)

    Results to £100 win level stakes:

    163 Bets

    Profit £5,922

    To 5 point win bets: Profit +296.10 pts

    NB. By removing both Plumpton and Wetherby from the qualifying tracks, the profit was increased to £7,322 from a total of 145 bets – see Steve’s Blog dated 8 April 2008.’

  17. Gavin says:

    If the yanks don’t believe weight matters then come November at Santa Anita let all their horses carry 9-00 and all of ours 8-10. I think they may then re-evaluate that little theory.


  18. George says:

    Hi All,

    A simple “system” is to back all top-weights in 3yo handicaps.

    As an aside, when I was in the bookie business back in the early 1960s, a certain trainer based in Epsom (nicknamed “Snowy P….” said to me that if a horse has non-aluminium racing shoes on and runs with the heavier iron shoes this will be equivalent to having “extra weight” and would slow him down. He claimed that an extra ounce on the hoof was the equivalent a a pound on the back! Just a comment ….

    Cheers, George

  19. tony says:

    Hi Matt,
    I suspect your top weight chart took all race distanses and going. if you took all 5f hcps on good to firm going and 16f+ handicap hudles in soft going in two seperate charts you would see the differance, as your chart is just an average of all dist and going creates a fals effect of weight.

  20. Jack Crompton says:

    Good Evening
    I paper traded the ‘top weights at tight tracks’ system two NH seasons ago – it bombed, despite some long-priced winners. The fact that two qualifying tracks are removed to massage the figures is surely suspect. Btw, it’s only the hurdles course at Wetherby which is tight.
    Has anyone got the statistics regarding horses taking a dump during a race? Could be an important factor.
    Sorry, have I lowered the tone of this thread?

  21. John says:

    Hi chaps,

    Interesting debate indeed to which I will add my twopeneth or two cents (I live in the Euro zone) worth.

    A couple of fundamental points should be considered:

    1). Not all F1 cars are equal so in the original debate I would suggest weight is not the key differentiator rather engine, aerodynamics of the car and last but not least, the driver. Though a great car can make a good driver appear better.

    2). Now to horses again “engine” (physical make up of said horse), class and jockey. A very good horse can succeed with a less than very good jockey whilst a less than very good horse can be “improved” by a very good jockey.

    Questions I would have with regard to horses are:

    a). Does extra weight have more of an impact the greater the distance?

    b). Does going, along with distance, exacerbate or lessen any additional extra weight carried?



  22. paul says:

    i dont,know alot about weight on horses all i know is a lot of weight not good,on a lighter note my old cricket coach used to say` class is perminate form is tempary`i used to get to 50 alot when batting well usually 70-80 rarely a ton but i always carried a few pounds and got knackered!ps thanks for response about a couple of systems .

  23. Vill says:

    Hi Matt.
    First post.
    Personally, weight has never come into my equation.
    Probably explains why the bookies have more off my money then I do.
    Now Geoff’s Mums double letter system is starting to sound appealing, tried it 25 yrs ago when I first started gambling, never worked then but maybe it will now.
    Thanks for great info & racing chit chat Matt & the occasional debate.
    Great site.

  24. Jon says:

    Jack Crompton – how long did you paper trade the topweights system for?

    The original results were impressive enough, so there was no need to massage them – Steve was just pointing out how much better they were when you took those two tracks out. The system was free, so he had nothing to gain financially.

  25. Rob Pacitto says:

    Well, I must say this was an interesting debate. Looking back at my original mail to Matt, it was a long winded way of saying two things…

    1) F1 proves that, whatever other factors influence speed, a little bit of weight still makes a little bit of difference. Sure, it varies from car to horse, from one horse to another, from one race type to another, and the horse might not feel or realise it, but it’s still there.

    2) If WFA makes no difference, then it’s pointless. If WFA makes a difference then it is unfair. So either way it should be scrapped.

    Just my opinion of course, among an impressive array above.

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