There are horses who are manifestly better on one type of going than another and others whose speed or stamina comes into play much more or much less when the surface on which they are running changes.
Needless to say, it is therefore highly important to describe accurately the surface on which horses have run, or are about to run, in the first place.
Clerks of The Courses have better assistance in doing this than they used to have, including access to a going stick, which measures shear and penetration in a systematic way. They also, in many cases, have an improved understanding of the effect of wind, rain and sun on their racing surfaces.
However, going-stick readings are by their nature predictive, in that they take place before racing, sometimes a long time before racing. While the application of the going stick is systematic, the timing and reporting of going-stick readings are not.
The going-stick reading you see in your paper might be many hours out of date. No going-stick readings are taken during, or immediately after, racing.
Clerks of The Courses are also in the business of trying to attract runners, which can involve well-intentioned interference with the state of the surface and accusations of misreporting of the nature of that surface in the absence of a truly independent authority.
Using race times to gauge the nature of the surface – something which Timeform has championed for decades – remains the best objective measure. Unlike alternatives, race times are a reflection of the surface at the times the races were run, and not at an unspecified number of hours beforehand.
This process has improved over the years, also: not only are overall times used, but the sectional times and implied pace variations which gave rise to them are used also. A succession of slowly-run races, resulting in slow overall times and a possible assumption that the surface is more testing than is truly the case, are identified and allowed for more than might once have been the case.
Overall and sectional times – adjusted for considerations like distance, weight carried, putative ability of the horses in question, and so on – represent a powerful manifestation of the true speed of a racing surface. It is not only possible to ascertain how much a surface is slowing horses down, but to track the apparent effect of atmospheric influences with workable precision throughout a racecard.
Official going descriptions, even if apparently correct at the outset of a card, frequently lag behind changes in the surface once racing is under way, or even fail to be adjusted at all.
Time-based analysis is highly granular, but official going descriptions remain traditionally much less so. Turf going is described by just a few categories, ranging from firm, through good, to heavy. All-weather surfaces have even fewer categories, ranging from fast, through standard (far and away the most commonly used), to slow.
In terms of going summaries, Timeform adopts the same categorisation process. It is useful for ease of understanding, for all that it loses precision. However, Timeform will always independently validate the official going description, using race times and sectional times, as well as input from its racecourse reporters and from independent and highly sophisticated meteorological sources.
Timeform does not differ from the official description of the going lightly – it has been arrived at after preparation and thought, for all its limitations, after all – and hardly ever differs from it by more than one going category. But differ it will if the evidence points conclusively in that direction.
The official going description will determine the way margins are returned officially, it will determine whether horses can be withdrawn with or without penalty, and it will appear, whether correctly or not, in the official record of a horse throughout its career.
It is surely important to get it “right” by using the most sophisticated evidence-based means necessary. That is what we at Timeform seek to do.