Article Date: 25-June-2012
Blake’s Blog: So You Think He’s Slow?
One of the more talked about interviews at Royal Ascot last week was that given by Aidan O’Brien after So You Think won the Prince of Wales’s Stakes.
The trainer was very keen to put the blame on himself for not training the horse well last year and felt the Australians were right to accuse him of “training the speed out of” So You Think. It was certainly a very humble and frank interview, but was O’Brien being too hard on himself?
After all, comparing top-class middle-distance racing in Britain and Ireland to the equivalent in Australia is like comparing chalk with cheese. In Britain and Ireland, such races are generally run at a solid pace throughout, with the emphasis being primarily on stamina and fitness. In Australia, the majority of races in excess of seven furlongs are generally run at a steady pace and are decided by a sprint finish over the final three/four furlongs.
While there is a general perception that middle-distance horses are notably slower than sprinters, this isn’t necessarily the case. When talented middle-distance horses are trained for speed and given the opportunity to show it at the finish of a steadily-run race, as they are in Australia, they can record some remarkable finishing sectionals.
So You Think is the perfect example to use to illustrate this, as he is the only middle-distance performer to have raced extensively and with success at the highest level in both Europe and Australia in the modern age.
Consider that in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes (a slightly inclined 10 furlongs) at Royal Ascot in 2011, hand-taken sectionals suggest that So You Think ran the final three furlongs in approximately 38.2 seconds.
Contrast this to his second win in the Cox Plate (a flat 10.2 furlongs), arguably his most notable performance in Australia, where he clocked a remarkable 34.92 seconds for the final three furlongs. The latter performance is given further context by the fact that the world’s best sprinter Black Caviar could only clock 35.26 seconds for the last three furlongs when winning a Group 2 over six furlongs on the same card earlier that afternoon.
Thus, while plenty questioned O’Brien’s insistence on the amount of speed that So You Think possessed last year, the above numbers prove that the horse is very much capable of remarkable speed. So, why did he show it on the racecourse in Australia and not in Europe? Some of the answer may lie with O’Brien’s training, but a much bigger factor is the contrasting racing styles in the different jurisdictions and respective conditioning that they require.
In Australia, as most races in excess of seven furlongs are so steadily run, Australian trainers can get away with much lighter conditioning regimes, training for a turn of foot rather than stamina, as in practical terms, the horses are only truly racing for three or four furlongs no matter what the distance.
Given that British and Irish middle-distance races are generally solidly run from the outset, the emphasis is much more on stamina and thus, the trainers have to give their horses a much harder preparation, with stamina and fitness having more importance than speed. Thus, O’Brien would have had to significantly change So You Think’s regime to condition him to be fit enough to compete in the more strongly-run races of Britain and Ireland.
It is a basic rule of physics and physiology that the faster a horse runs in the early stages of a race, the slower he will finish it off, so even if O’Brien trained So You Think in an Australian speed-focused style, it would be impossible for the horse to replicate the closing sectionals that he did in steadily-run races in Australia in more strongly-run races in Europe.
On a related note, the above factors are also the answer to the commonly-asked question of why Australian horses can race so much more regularly and over a greater variety of trips than British and Irish horses.
Australian racing, over trips of seven fulongs and upwards, requires much less conditioning and exertion than the European equivalent, thus the intensity of preparation and the required recovery periods are significantly less, which allows horses in Australia to withstand more racing.
Given that the sprint-finish test is so similar over so many trips, it is also much easier for Australian-trained horses to compete over a variety of distances. In contrast, there is no place to hide in the solidly-run equivalent races in Europe and stamina limitations are quickly exposed, thus trip preferences are a much bigger factor.
To bring all of this back to O’Brien and So You Think, while O’Brien’s post-race comments suggest that he thinks he may have overdone the stamina work with So You Think, the horse's form suggests he has no reason to doubt himself, as his ratings on turf have been remarkably consistent from his time with Bart Cummings right through his entire time in Ballydoyle.
While that level of form was good enough for So You Think to dominate the comparatively weak middle-distance division in Australia, he is destined to be remembered as a very good, but not a great middle-distance performer in Europe.
Though, this corner feels that he also deserves to be remembered for the versatility and consistency he showed in operating at the highest level in what are vastly different racing hemispheres.
A Toast To The Black Flash
What a build up, what drama! It will be to my eternal personal regret that I wasn’t present at Royal Ascot last Saturday. Even through the television, one could appreciate the palpable air of excitement, expectation and nerves that surrounded the build up to Black Caviar’s bid for the Diamond Jubilee.
Her 1/6 price suggested a straightforward success was likely but, as was discussed in this blog a fortnight ago, with the unknowns of the effect of intercontinental travel, softer than ideal ground, the stiffest course and distance she had tackled and the fact that her coat was well and truly gone, it was not the penalty kick that most anticipated it would be.
What transpired was pure sporting drama. With a furlong to race Black Caviar looked to have matters in hand, albeit not exerting the dominance that was widely expected. Then, inexplicably, Luke Nolen stopped riding on her and - with Moonlight Cloud and Restiadargent swooping - he belatedly began to push her out again for the final three strides and she only just held on. A rapidly-diminishing head is all that separated Nolen from what would have gone down as one of the most shocking blunders in racing history.
While some cynics took the opportunity to suggest that the race proved that Black Caviar was overhyped and not nearly as good as her Australian form suggested, such an opinion doesn’t stand up to even the lightest scrutiny.
The proximity of Soul, a horse who was rated at least six lengths inferior to Black Caviar in Australia, in a close fourth place is a solid indicator of how far below her best Black Caviar was.
Any of the aforementioned variables could have been factors in her underperformance, but the one that stands out above all others is that it emerged that she had torn a couple of muscles in the race. True champions overcome adversity and there is no doubt that Black Caviar is a true champion.
One can only thank Black Caviar’s connections for making such a unique sporting event a possibility by taking the incredibly ballsy and game decision to bring her over to Royal Ascot and one hopes that the shock caused by Nolen’s actions didn’t spoil their enjoyment of the success.
Fingers crossed, she will recover fully from her exertions and return to the track, but if she doesn’t, there is no doubt that she will be forever remembered for her starring role in one of the most dramatic races in Royal Ascot’s long history and indeed, as one of the all-time great sprinters.
A Remarkable Approach
Outside of the wins of Frankel and Black Caviar, perhaps the most noteworthy performance of Royal Ascot was that of the first-season sire New Approach.
There are just six two-year-old races at the Royal meeting and progeny of New Approach won half of them. Since the pattern began over forty years ago, no stallion has ever sired three juvenile stakes winners at Royal Ascot in any one year. In fact, only Habitat with two in 1973 has had more than one. This is made all the more remarkable as, not only is New Approach a first-season sire, he is a first-season sire that won an Epsom Derby.
Given the type of horse New Approach was himself and considering that he primarily covered mares of miler/middle-distance profile, the blistering start that he has made would have to be considered one of the most promising of any stallion in recent times.
His initial success at stud, and indeed that of this year's surprise package Sixties Icon, coupled with the record compiled by promising second-season sire Teofilo, suggests that the mighty Galileo is well on his way to securing a legacy of not just the leading sire of his era, but also as a leading sire of sires.
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