Why Frankel will stay further

Stride-pattern analysis lends credence to Tom Queally’s belief that his mount idled in front – as opposed to being tired – in the St James’s Palace Stakes more »

Monday, July 4, 2011

Guest columnist

The array of technical information which Frankel produced in the St James’s Palace Stakes suggested a different conclusion to that generally drawn. Take a deep breath: it gives weight to the post-race testimony of his jockey Tom Queally which was cynically dismissed.

Frankel’s amazing burst in the middle of the Royal Ascot Group 1, together with the subsequent close finish, led many to conclude that Queally had forced his mount to the point of exhaustion too soon in the race. Some even said that Frankel ran like a seven-furlong horse. I think neither of these things is true.

Coming into the race, the concern was that the 2,000 Guineas winner would pull hard, but he actually settled very well in the first two furlongs.

Queally’s decision to extricate him from a position on the rails soon after this point looked a reasonable tactical ploy. But then the rider started pumping his hands and asking Frankel to accelerate – usually a reckless ploy on the uphill stretch of the Old Mile running out of Swinley Bottom.

Put to his best stride, Frankel unleashed the kind of breathtaking speed which makes him such a force: after a tepid first quarter-mile of 26.6sec, he ran the next three furlongs, on the incline, in a staggering 34.3sec, getting away from the pack with a fourth furlong touching 11sec. And the ground was less than firm, too.

At Newmarket, Frankel had distributed his energy in a similar fashion. He had run more on freshness, though allowed the rope to do so by Queally. His second quarter there was 22sec flat, smashing up the Classic field but leading to subsequent fractions of 24sec and 26.3sec which first suggested that he was tiring, despite the six-length win.

But the course for the St James’s Palace Stakes is much stiffer than that for the 2,000 Guineas – on average, it takes a horse 4.5sec longer to cover the same distance at Ascot than Newmarket. So this time any similar deceleration would be potentially more dangerous.

Frankel ran the final three furlongs at Ascot in 38.3sec, or 4sec slower than the previous three; he finished with a final furlong of nearly 14sec. Coupled with the visual impression of the pack closing him down, it seemed to add up to the horse tiring badly. Not only this, but some even added another layer of interpretation, asserting that Queally had panicked at the thought of his mount getting boxed in.

That Queally said Frankel was idling was breezily dismissed. He was clearly trying to exonerate himself, the world-weary said.

Frankel’s average stride frequency was reducing, from 137 strides per minute to 130, but his average stride length was not

While the sectional times prove conclusively that Frankel ran much faster in the middle part of the race than at the end, they do not prove why. There is no doubt his expansive burst would have been costly, but another technical measure – stride-pattern analysis – lends support to what Queally said.

Frankel took 30 strides to cover the penultimate furlong in 13.1sec, after which he held a four-length cushion over nearest pursuer Excelebration. But, though he could muster a final furlong of only 13.8sec, allowing the strong-finishing Zoffany to close to three-quarters of a length, he again used 30 strides.

In other words, Frankel’s average stride frequency was reducing, from 137 strides per minute to 130, but his average stride length was not: 22 feet per stride from the two-pole to the furlong-marker and the same home. (These measurements are subject to a tolerance imposed by the limitations of the human eye.)

A tired horse usually shortens its stride. This is some function of reduced muscle efficiency, though it is also linked to respiration: like many four-legged mammals, it takes exactly one breath per stride. So shorter strides, or more strides per second, provide more oxygen.

As Frankel galloped up the straight, his average stride-length in each of the last two furlongs was constant and his stride frequency was actually decreasing. This isn’t the usual pattern with tired horses, but it may be some evidence that he was doing exactly what his jockey said he was doing: resisting the instruction to keep going – idling, in other words.

This is important not just for academic purposes or for interest. Frankel is bred to stay at least a mile and a quarter. And I think the evidence suggests he will do exactly that. I think his stride-pattern tells you he was tiring no more than could be reasonably expected and that he just shut it down in the straight, perhaps losing concentration, perhaps intimidated by the gaudy surroundings, perhaps a little wilfully too.

This is one of the most exciting horses of the last 20 years. If he were mine, he would go for his owner’s Juddmonte International at York over a mile and a quarter. This time, however, I would make sure he gets a lead.

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About James Willoughby

Guest columnist
  • http://reactionarytimes.co.uk/ CreamOnTop

    Interesting that we want a narrative that fits our usual patterns and ignore prima facia evidence like what the Jockey says even with, for most of us, no means of contradiction. Queally may have had reasons to make that point regardless of whether it was correct from his perspective. However it’s worth assuming there was something in his view bar self interest – jockeys/trainers are actually often overly prone to taking the blame when their charge, or at least the result, is unexpected (see Mike Smith/Zenyatta and AOB/SYT). 

    Indeed the 2nd that day Zoffany many of us had staying on at a mile and beaten in a sprint by lack of push button acceleration yesterday as needing a stiff mile. Yet connections are set to step back in trip. 

    Opposing what other people think they know is probably the best source of profit to the punter.

    I just cannot wait to see Frankel again and find out some more about him.

    • James Willoughby

      Jon, I think it is a reasonable reaction to some of the things we have been told over the years that we should become distrustful of the motivations for public expression. However, as you indicate, things have now probably gone too far and those swept away by the tide of cynicism risk missing out on valuable testimony from trainers and jockeys who are reacting genuinely. Your point regarding the value of resisting cognitive biases to which the crowd is susceptible holds very true.

  • Wibble

    Horses strides do seem to shorten as they tire, but is it not only in the latter stages of exhaustion that that’s the case? Most notable with staying chasers in deep mid-winter mud. The reason I say this is because Dubawi Gold also took the same number of strides (approximately 32/furlong) in each of the last 3 furlongs, and there’s no question he DID weaken. His stride didn’t shorten, but his frequency of stride did.

    • James Willoughby

      You have hit the nail on the head as to why this form of analysis will always be severely limited at this stage of our technological ability with race pictures. I actually had Dubawi Gold’s stride shortening looking back at my notes, but the difference is not enough with most Flat horses for the signal to survive the noise involved in measuring it. As you say, midwinter jumpers make it much more obvious that the concept has validity, and, in Frankel’s case, I have no doubt that he he had something left – you only have to witness the difficulty in pulling him up. I hope you will agree that I have a good record at expanding on points like these in my articles when space allows. Very well observed – whoever you are!

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