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A MATTER OF TIMING
By Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)
Monday 17 Mar 2014
Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)

In the article "Alaindair's Derby", the sectional timings of his race were given and they evoked an interesting debate. A question arose whether a horse could do a quarter in 21.94. The timings given were rechecked and they are consistent with what is printed in the Cole race card. The sectional timings for a few other previous Indian Derbies were also checked and it was found that the fourth quarter in Diabolical's Derby was run in 21.86. How reliable are these timings? 

The side debate deflected the attention from the point that was sought to be made. That point pertained to pace and not speed. Speed is what can be clocked by a timing device; pace is the ebb and flow of speed in a race. Consider Alaindair's Derby and notice what the timing on the clock was at end of each quarter and the absolute speed in which that quarter was run:-

Distance 400 800 1200 1600 2000 2400
Time 27.08 52.42 1.14.36 1.39.42 2.03.88 2.28.05
Quarter 27.08 25.34 21.94 25.06 24.46 24.17

The first quarter was the slowest and the third the fastest. The sequence is descending order is 1-2-4-5-6-3. Given that there are six quarters, 720 different sequences are possible and each sequence demands that a horse be positioned differently. It is well nigh impossible for the connections to foresee how a race will unfold and instruct the jockey accordingly. The jockey may well get his instructions only for the race to pan out quite differently. He doesn't have much time to modify his instructions and unless he is a big name jockey he may not have the confidence to deviate from his mandate. 

The pace, of course, assumes greater importance in races of 2000 m. or above. In a 2400 m. event, we would normally expect the tempo to build gradually with everyone going for broke in the closing stages. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way. In recent years, only Antonios and In The Spotlight recorded the fastest quarter in the last 400 m. When Psychic Flame won, the first half of the race was run in an extremely fast time (1.12.67) while the second half was so slow (1.20.97) that even a Class VB horse would have won the race had he been allowed to join the contest at 1200 m. 

There is a saying - "Horses don't run against a clock; they run against each other". Like all aphorisms, it is only partially true and it only holds good for races that are truly run. Races run at a false pace often produce unexpected results and a case in point is the victory of Isn't She Special in the Indian Oaks where she beat Circle of Bliss (2nd) and Starry Eyes (5th). In the Indian Derby as well as the Invitation Cup, both Starry Eyes and Circle of Bliss finished ahead of Capt. Appoo's filly. How did it happen? 

Let's first consider the Indian Oaks. Venus Marina led from the start while Isn't She Special settled into a box seat just behind her. David Allan sent Isn't She Special past Venus Marina around 1200 m.marker and then led right upto the winning post. Now note the timings and quarters:-

Timing 26.06 48.84 1.14.01 1.41.79 2.06.77 2.30.95
Quarters 26.06 22.78 25.17 26.78 24.98 24.18

The fastest quarter was the second quarter and the slowest was the fourth. The fourth quarter was the one where Isn't She Special took over the running and her jockey gave her a breather. Coming into the straight, Isn't She Special was two lengths in front of Snowing with the rest of the field another four lengths away. The filly thus had a handy lead and enough gas left in the tank to win. In the Indian Derby, it was a different story. She led from 2000 m. to 400 m. but she always had someone on her tail so that Allan could not afford the luxury of giving her a breather. Thus she arrived into the straight almost three seconds earlier than in the Oaks and the tank was empty. Her Derby finishing time is shown as 2.29.78 which is faster than her winning time in the Oaks. And yet, Starry Eyes and Circle of Bliss finished way ahead of her. Sectional timings of the Invitation Cup are not available but watching on the screen, it would seem that Isn't She Special was at 400 m. in 2.05.4 (much faster than in Indian Oaks) where Starry Eyes overtook her. 

When it comes to judgement of pace, the name that is most often mentioned is that of Pandu Khade. What was so special about the Kolhapurian? I asked the question once to the late Maj K.P. Jadhav. "Come to see the work tomorrow morning and you will know," replied Maj. Jadhav. Maj. Jadhav had a horse running that week-end and Khade was riding him in a spin. When Khade returned from the work, Maj. Jadhav, with a put-on glum face told him, "Pandoba, I think I will have to scratch the horse. He went only six under and that's not good enough for this race." "Major Saheb," replied Khade. "Throw away your stop-watch. It's no good. The horse did at least minus eight." Maj.Jadhav burst out laughing and showed me his stop watch. The horse had done minus nine! 

Gwalior trainer Maj. V.M. Lad did not get along too well with Pandu Khade but there was no greater admirer of the jockey's skill and talent than him. "That man had a stop-watch on his heart", he once said. Long after Khade hung up his boots, he could always be found at the races on the Derby Day in Mumbai and either the Rajaram Chhatrapati Gold Cup or Akkasaheb Maharaj Cup in Pune. It was a pleasure to get him aside and talk about racing matters and in particular of pace. I took no notes and it is from memory that I am quoting what he had to say. 

"As young apprentices, we were taught to judge the pace. In the beginning you counted. After some time, it became a habit and you did it without thinking. When we came back from a spurt or a gallop, the trainer would ask the jockey "Kitna kamti gaya ?". Trainers like Higgins and Buckley would be very angry if you were far off the mark. In a race, you could judge at what speed your horse was going. It was impossible to judge at what speed a horse twenty lengths in front was going. 

In a race like the Derby (only Jagdish had ridden as many Derby winners as Khade when the latter retired), you would generally have ridden the horse earlier and in work so you were familiar with the horse. In our days, you had to cover the distance in about 2.40. That is minus 20. I divided the race in three parts. In the first part upto the mile marker, I planned to get my horse settled and running easy at a comfortable speed, hoping to do 5 or 6 'kamti' (minus). Same for next 800 m. I wanted a horse running comfortably. At 800, if you had not done 'baara kamti' and your horse was under pressure, you had no chance. But if he had done what you wanted, you were in the race and he now had to do 8 to 10 'kamti'. That depended on how well he was trained and how well you rode. A horse moving comfortably at the speed you wanted was always in the right position. Frankly, I never bothered about the speed at which the front horses were going and I only vaguely tried to follow instructions regarding position. 

People have always talked about my win on Pimpernel in the St. Leger. I knew that my horse couldn't match the 'kabra' (grey; Kashmir's Rough Deal) in finishing speed so my best chance was to have a handy lead coming into straight. It was a bad start but I got away well and kept going at a steady pace. My horse was moving very comfortably so I stepped up the speed a bit after the mile post and gave him a little breather before the final bend. He was still going well so I pushed him coming into the straight so that I had a good break over the favourite. The 'kabra' came at us in closing stages but my horse fought well. Good horses have that spirit. We won by a head. Important thing was that I maintained a speed that I had selected." 

Thus spoke the Master of Pace. 

PAST THE POST 

People use different methods to select horses in a particular race - sectional timings, handicapping, speed-rating, astrology, colorology, numerology and so on, I have a working knowledge the first three systems and a very good friend of mine swears by sectional timings. I think if he stuck to his system, he would do well but every now and then "khabar" leads him astray and then he starts chasing losses. One point which he always stresses is that if a horse does the final quarter in less than 24 seconds, he is sure to win one of his next two races if they are around the same distance.