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Sectional Debrief: Cheltenham Festival 2017

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Simon Rowlands analyses the sectional times from the 2017 Cheltenham Festival and picks out the most notable performances on the clock, including from the four championship races.

How was it for you? Like many eagerly-anticipated events, there can be a sense of deflation when Cheltenham’s four days are finally over, though the tweed-clad devotees will remind you that there are only 361 days to go until the next one.

Before then, however, there are the small matters of the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals, and a number of other high-profile jumps events, for which it will be important to understand what just happened and what it may indicate for the future.

To that end, this blog will take you through the championship events over the past four days from a timing and sectional point of view, starting with the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.

The two-mile hurdling championship is not always run in a faster time than the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over the same course and distance, but that was the case this year by just under 2.0 seconds, with the Champion winner Buveur d’Air carrying 3 lb more than the Supreme winner Labaik for good measure.

Buveur d’Air’s time was a good one in a wider context, also, and gets a division-leading 168 timefigure by my reckoning. This was possible in no small part because of a pace set by Petit Mouchoir that was sound for much of the way but actually a bit quicker than optimum from after four out until between the last two.

Buveur d’Air was sensibly held up a few lengths back before leading approaching the last but was still a bit slower than par up the run-in and slower than Labaik had been (14.3s compared to 14.0s).

The direct comparison between Buveur d’Air and Labaik individually – expressed as lengths rather than times – can be seen in the following graph.

Both races were fair contests on the whole, but Petit Mouchoir deserves extra credit in the Champion for holding on for third. Buveur d’Air is a decent, but not superior, Champion Hurdle winner on time, having beaten My Tent Or Yours here by the same 4½-length margin as Annie Power had managed 12 months before.   

The opening day also saw an Arkle Chase won, as expected, by Altior, if not in as good style as most were anticipating. The sectionals of that race make for an interesting comparison with the following day’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, in which Douvan got turned over at even shorter odds than those at which Altior started.

There was precious little between the winning times of the two races, with Altior 0.3s faster by my reckoning, but the two wins were achieved in very different fashions. Despite the 24 hours between the two events, the speed of the surface seemed very similar on both days.

Again, those figures are for the two respective winners, and they show that Special Tiara was a long way ahead until coming right back after three out. Was it a question of Special Tiara going too fast or Altior going too slowly? A bit of both is the answer.

The race finishing speed (speed from three out compared to average speed for race overall) of the Arkle was 106.9%, while the Champion Chase was 97.7%, whereas the par is between the two (a fraction under 100%).

It is not such a surprise that Altior had to be rousted before being left in front at the second-last, and the pace he showed to draw clear up the run-in was impressive. His time from three out of 51.4s was easily the fastest over fences on the Old Course over the two days and just 0.6s slower than Douvan had run (on about 30 lb quicker ground) in winning the Arkle 12 months earlier.

Meanwhile, Special Tiara won by going fast enough to take his rivals out of their comfort zones and then showed tenacity to hang on from the closing Fox Norton. Special Tiara’s time for the run-in of 18.3s was 2.4s (around a dozen lengths) slower than Altior’s.

Neither Altior nor Special Tiara ran a top-notch overall time (both in the 150s by my reckoning), but each can be marked up, if for different reasons.

The action switched from the Old Course to the New Course for the last two days, with the surface watered overnight on Wednesday despite an official going description at that stage of “Good, good to soft in places”.

Times on the Thursday suggested that the chase course was quicker than the hurdle one (which may still have been good to soft).

The centrepiece of the penultimate day took place on the latter in the form of the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, won by Nichols Canyon. The running of the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle, won by Presenting Percy, at the same course and distance earlier on the card makes for an interesting one-on-one comparison.

What we have here are two horses being held up well off the pace, with race sectionals from three out suggesting both contests were essentially truly-run. But things were more uneven than that one-off sectional implies, leading to that rather strange graph.

The pace of the handicap was quick over the first four flights then slackened running down the hill for the first time; at around the latter juncture, a fairly-run Stayers’ Hurdle became quicker still. It was only after halfway that equitability was restored, before the runners in both races turned on the gas running to the second-last.

That last feature enabled both winners to come from around eight lengths back jumping three out (which is just over seven furlongs from the finish) to lead late on as others began to flag.

The closeness of the overall times – 0.6s quicker for the Stayers’ when about 2.2s quicker might have been expected – reflects better on Presenting Percy than on Nichols Canyon. But sectionals show that, not for the first time in a long-distance race, the ebbing and flowing of pace is more nuanced than can be captured in just one final time.

The indication from times are that conditions were similar on the final day as on the Thursday, though a headwind in the closing stages also played a part.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup, won by Sizing John, was run in a time 6.7s quicker than the Foxhunter Chase won by Pacha du Polder, which is about what might be expected unless the former had been a superior edition. With less than 10 lengths separating the first six, that seems unlikely.

Remarkably, the leaders in the Foxhunter were quicker until the fifth fence than the leaders in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, though that was a reflection of the pace in the former being overly strong more than anything. From the fifth fence onwards, the Cheltenham Gold Cup runners drew steadily further ahead.

A more useful comparison is one between this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and last year’s, Don Cossack. The surface speed was very similar on both occasions (I have it a mere 5 lb quicker this year than last), but Don Cossack ran about 1.8s quicker and can be considered a better horse.

Last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup was run at a fast pace bar a steadying mid-race, and those figures for Don Cossack should be viewed in the context that he did not even lead. Neither did Sizing John, who was mostly about five lengths off a pace being set by Native River and Champagne West.

This year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup made up the deficit mid-race, but only briefly (around the top of the hill on the first circuit). Thereafter, it dropped several lengths behind and stayed there.

The closing stages of this year’s race tested speed more than stamina – the race finishing speed was 100.4% where just under 100% would be par – but only just. There were no major bad-luck stories on sectionals, but Sizing John’s timefigure is likely to be in the mid-to-low 160s, where a good Cheltenham Gold Cup winner (like Don Cossack) would be well into the 170s.

Timeform’s Sectional Archive gives timing details of all runners at all meetings, and not just over the last four days. As an example of some of the information which can be extracted, the following are the fastest closing sectionals across this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Absolute times without context do not always tell the whole story, but there are some interesting figures there, including the fact that Altior ran faster late on in terms of seconds/furlong (13.72) than any other chaser at the entire Festival and that the same distinction over hurdles went to Arctic Fire (13.65 s/f).

The presence in those lists of some who failed to make the places but still ran notably fast late in their races should raise a few eyebrows, too!

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