Why the figures dictate to close your eyes and back this horse for the Derby

Russian Emperor and Ryan Moore get up close home to beat the Queen’s First Receiver in the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot. Photo: Megan Ridgwell/focusonracing.com

When it comes to data, this world is divided into two kinds of people: those who are open to revising their understanding and those who look merely for confirmation. The truth is that most people don’t really trust numbers when those numbers tell them something different from their eyes.

In this regard, the Investec Derby at Epsom on Saturday features the platonic example in equine form: his name is RUSSIAN EMPEROR. You might also call him Schroedinger’s Horse after the famous Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment about duality, for he is simultaneously one of the fastest horses in the race and one of the slowest.

Before proceeding, a full disclosure: your author is a figures guy through and through. Whether this was nature or conditioning is not clear: I had some early precocity for maths, which my family were keen to push. You may be just like this or you may be different: either way, it doesn’t make you a better or worse thinker in my book.

Russian Emperor is referred to here as the fastest horse in the Derby field only in the vernacular of the figures guy. There is no chance he is capable of matching top speeds with Kameko, the 2000 Guineas winner, who could easily follow up his Rowley Mile triumph over 50 per cent further here. No, I say fastest only because he has the top speed figure, according to my numbers, and, even if you want to quibble with that, it is not difficult to appreciate his claims.

The case according to data in this case comes from Royal Ascot, no less, on June 17. First exhibit is the G1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes featuring some of the best older horses around. It was won by the Dubawi gelding Lord North, impressively by almost four lengths. In a race run at a strong pace, he covered the final three furlongs at an average speed greater than that of the race as a whole. In other words, he cleared away from the field not because a pace meltdown happened around him.

Lord North stopped the clock in 2m 5.63sec, yet earlier on an afternoon with no rain, our hero Russian Emperor covered the same distance in 2m 5.86sec – only 0.25sec (or a length and a half) slower – in the G3 Hampton Court Stakes – despite the fact he is a vital year younger than Lord North (both were carrying the same weight). According to the weight-for-age scale of Racing Research, the average racehorse improves 10lb during this period.

The sectional times for both races were comparable, so it seems that we could reach the seemingly fanciful conclusion that Russian Emperor might have even won the Prince of Wales's Stakes because he would have been receiving a weight-for-age allowance from Lord North which would theoretically have tipped the balance. On the day, Lord North received a class-based Timeform rating of 128 and the same figure was awarded using similar methodology by Racing Post Ratings.

Blockbuster speed figure

Now, to use the title of one of my favourite books as a self-reference, I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That (Ben Goldacre). Final time comparisons, and even coarsely grained sectionals, don’t always imply the true level of competition in a race. It can be the ebb-and-flow of pace within a race, the almost imperceptible changes of tempo and intensity, that cause some horses to fall apart and superior rivals to assert themselves.

So, whether you accept the time-based hypothesis or reject it, as common sense seems to dictate, it doesn’t matter that much in the context of the Derby. Whichever way you shake it, Russian Emperor deserves a blockbuster figure for his Hampton Court win. And Timeform, whose speed figures I respect greatly, pegged it at a stellar 116.

It all looks so cut and dried until you put on the tape (see video below, ignoring the errorenous time). Now, how do you feel about the notion that Russian Emperor is already a top-notch runner on the clock? He is the horse at the back of the field early in the dark-blue jacket. We know they were going fast alright, but don’t you think Russian Emperor was always close to flat out?

Neither does Russian Emperor move as fluently as you would like. He has kind of a choppy stride and seems to almost crossover in front. It’s not really what you would like to see from a colt as beautifully bred as this: he’s a son of the mighty Galileo out of the much-admired Australian ten-furlong runner Atlantic Jewel. Now she was good.

The question is whether all this touchy feely stuff, the 'dark arts' of horse racing, really matters when you find out a horse has run so fast? Andy Beyer’s wonderful book The Winning Horseplayer underlined the importance of evaluating figures in the context of trips and other subjective factors, but I have noted a few times since that the great man has argued himself out of a few big winners because he didn’t like something about how the horse had run.

I called Russian Emperor one of the slowest horses in the field this time using the vernacular of what we call in Britain the 'race reader'. In other words, he doesn’t own a high-cruising speed like Kameko or push-button acceleration like the impressive Derby favourite English King. He makes it look like hard work, which we don’t associate with elite performers.

Success in betting is predicated on the long run, not being right every time. It’s seductive to want to bet the horse who looks like a champion visually, as this is very often the right thing to do. But it is interesting that television commentators were calling English King a potential Derby winner within seconds of him passing the line, while there was far more circumspection over Russian Emperor. (It turned out that English King’s time was also very good, by the way, which bolsters his case no end.) This is emblematic of how many people assess racehorses; the first impression is often cited as a powerful technique.

I so want to back English King because I think he is going to win. That’s if Kameko doesn’t, which may come about because he is just a little short of stamina. It is a tough call to take on the former because I think he is potentially very good, and it’s tough to take on the latter because we already know he is very good. And this is also a race with many other possibilities, including lightly bet outsiders like Worthily and Serpentine, who are eligible to improve a good deal.

But the horse I am backing is Russian Emperor. Whether that’s the right call remains to be seen, of course, but it is the call I should make to stay true to myself, to adhere to my principles, even to minimise regret after the race. That’s something I consider important in betting and in life.

And, if Russian Emperor is beaten, it probably won’t be so pretty, and everyone will tell me he was never going to be fast enough to win. And I will probably tell myself I knew that deep down as well. But, this is the greatest game on Earth and look at it this way: being wrong is just the seed cost of winning out in the long run.

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