As the turf flat season 2013 trundles to a weary close this weekend , with bottomless ground having been almost de rigeur for the last few weeks, it is, perhaps, time to reflect on one of the ongoing problems in British racing, that of ‘Official’ going descriptions.
There are almost any number of factors to consider before striking a bet (if you are looking to make a profit) and an almost endless supply of places to find the ‘stats’ that you need. Speed ratings, sectional times, sire stats etc are all fast becoming a regular part of ‘punter consciousness’, but, without doubt, the three most important factors before striking any bet are : the ground, the ground and …. the ground !!
‘Official’ going descriptions in the UK are provided in each case by the Clerk Of The Course. They are entirely the view of one man with a stick, sometimes he has two sticks, the second being an official ‘going stick’ which he digs into the ground (much like his normal stick) and then ‘pulls back’ to test the degree of resistance and a reading is registered. He will do this at various places on the course, but, is not duty bound to accept any reading that he does not like. That’s it !! That’s as sophisticated as this multi-billion pound industry can come up with in 2013 !! It should also be remembered that there will always be conflicting pressures on Clerks, pressure from owners, trainers and the BHA amongst them, some wanting watered ground, others not. It is clear that this leads to the ‘Official’ report in many cases being what they would ‘like’ it to be and not what it ‘is’.
One of the more go-ahead Clerks in this country is James Armstrong at Newcastle. He has embraced social media and provides regular weather updates (and often pictures of the track). He provides detailed rainfall readings and even refrains from watering when there is significant rain forecast (if only we didn’t have a gross profits tax based levy perhaps more of his contemporaries might do likewise ?) Unfortunately though, even he is still just a ‘man-with-a-stick’, as evidenced on the 7th and 26th of August this year.
The official going description on August 7th was ‘soft (good to soft in places)’ changing to ‘good to soft (soft in places)’ after race one. The weather was recorded as ‘cloudy and warm’ with no appreciable ‘head’ or ‘tail’ wind that might distort times on the straight track.
The first race that day was a 7f nursery. Bearing in mind that Racing Post standard times are calculated, by the genius that is Dave Edwards, to reflect the time that a mature horse rated 90 will run on good to firm ground carrying 9st, I was expecting a time somewhere around 6 seconds slow (given that these were 2yo’s with the top rated being a filly carrying 9st 7lbs rated 80), if the going description was correct and the race was run at a reasonable pace. I backed Richard Fahey’s Heskin each-way (thankfully double stakes on the place on Betfair) on the basis that she had already won on soft at Chester (official going description ‘good’ !!) and waited to watch what had to be the ensuing ‘slog’. As ever when coverage is on ATR, who provide no help for punters in this regard, I reached for my trusty stopwatch to hand-time the race. Surely my time of 1.6 slow had to be wrong ? The ground could be no better than good to soft ? Alas no, an official time of 1.82 slow PROVED that the ground was nearer good to firm than any other description.
It is possible that races can be won on fast ground, if the pace is slow, in a slow time. It is NOT possible that moderate horses can win in a fast time on soft ground…. The 3 races on the round course at Newcastle that day were all reported (and can be seen to be) run at either a ‘messy’ or ‘steady pace’ and regular rail movements on round course races can lead to uncertainties regarding race times, this can’t be the case in straight course races . If anything, the moderate times recorded in them goes to prove, rather than disprove, this point. Especially given that subsequent races were won on the stright course by such horses as : Dream Maker, now rated over 80, racing off 62 that day, carrying 8st 7lbs, in a time 0.08 secs FASTER than standard over 1m; The 3yo Monakova, now rated 85, racing off 65 that day, carrying 9st 8lbs in a time only 0.5 slower than standard and the moderate Exotic Guest who carried 9st 1lb in the 0-75 5f sprint in a time just 1.1 secs slower than standard. That the official description was changed after the first race to ‘good to soft (soft in places)’ and never again revised is nonsense. For years to come, the form you read in the Racing Post, or on it’s website, will record these races as having been run on ground ‘good to soft (soft in places). Be careful people. It is of no surprise that the ‘time based going description’ for this meeting on the Racing Post site is recorded as ‘good to firm’ for EVERY race.
Unfortunately the above scenario was repeated on August 26th. On ground officially described as ‘good to soft (soft in places)’ , a description which has never been revised, the slowest race on the straight course at Newcastle was the 1m nursery (winner carried 9st 7lbs) in 2.07 outside standard. The loveable rogue Imaginary World won the 7f handicap in a time 0.04 secs outside standard (rated 66 carrying 9st after allowances) and the reliable yardstick Right Touch beat his elders in the all age 6f handicap in a time that equalled standard (rated 76 carrying 9st 3lbs). Even the slowly run 1m 4f handicap was only 4.03 secs outside standard that day (class 6,winner rated 53 carrying 9st) !!
So what are we to make of all this ? What lessons can we learn before the return of turf flat racing in the spring ? Simply that we should never take ‘Official’ descriptions at face value. Racing UK will still be there for us, providing accurate race times after each race adjusted (crucially) to show us the ‘per-furlong’ deviation from standard, ATR will not. Arm yourself with a stopwatch, most mobile phones have one, don’t get over involved financially until you are happy that you know the playing field you are stepping onto is ‘level’ and most importantly, never blindly trust a man-with-a-stick, even if he has two !!