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...
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
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
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
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!!)
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.
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)
CATEGORYÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â WINSÂ Â Â RUNSÂ STRIKE% LSPÂ Â Â Â LSP%Â Â Â Â VSP%
1st (top weight)Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2258Â Â 18328Â 12.32 -3239.09Â Â -17.67Â Â -11.54
2ndÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1646Â Â 14097Â 11.68 -3029.56Â Â -21.49Â Â -12.02
3rdÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1527Â Â 13938Â 10.96 -2402.64Â Â -17.24Â Â -12.78
4thÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1478Â Â 14130Â 10.46 -2848.02Â Â -20.16Â Â -11.01
5thÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1305Â Â 13855Â Â 9.42 -2709.23Â Â -19.55Â Â -14.60
6thÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1190Â Â 13752Â Â 8.65 -3099.29Â Â -22.54Â Â -15.78
7thÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 983Â Â 12986Â Â 7.57 -3169.08Â Â -24.40Â Â -18.73
8thÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 870Â Â 12176Â Â 7.15 -2697.04Â Â -22.15Â Â -18.08
9thÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 680Â Â 10749Â Â 6.33 -3315.85Â Â -30.85Â Â -20.04
10th+Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1943Â Â 38195Â Â 5.09 -11704.58Â Â -30.64Â Â -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.