What does it take to win or run well in the William Hill St Leger at Doncaster?
It is a beguilingly simple question, to which the answer might include “a high level of ability” and “a high degree of suitability to the test being faced”.
Timeform’s five-year average performance rating of winners is 122.4, for runners-up it is 121.0, and for third-placed finishers it is 119.0. That is solid Group 1 form by any standards.
In other words, you are unlikely to go close in a St Leger unless you are a pretty good performer, no matter what other factors may operate in your favour.
The suitability issue is less easy to define, but high on the list of requirements is the ability to see out 14f and 115 yards on a galloping track in a race which, as overall times and historical sectionals show, is more often than not run at a good or even a strong pace.
There are various factors which can increase or decrease confidence in this area, including a horse’s pedigree and its demeanour. To that may be added the manner in which it strides.
Striding analysis was first written about on these pages almost 18 months ago. There have been some triumphs and one or two setbacks since, but along the way we have learnt plenty about what the figures mean.
A horse’s speed results from its stride length multiplied by its stride frequency, or cadence. It is that simple, but in other respects striding analysis is far more complex.
Stride length is highly influenced by things like course topography and surface speed, but cadence, it transpires, is not. One result is that cadence can be used to predict stamina with little need for contextualisation, whereas stride length is more associated with ability and messier.
Horses need to stride quickly – ideally at 2.50 strides/second or higher – in order to sprint effectively, but striding quickly will soon result in fatigue. Even milers usually need to switch off to some degree in a race, and stayers need to do it far more.
Using Total Performance Data’s now-extensive archive, it can be determined that sprinters/milers usually show a cadence of 2.17 or less for under 10% of a race. This figure increases to around 22% for in-form mature horses at 9f to 11f, and 34% at 12f/13f. That proportion shoots up to just over 50% at 14f plus.
This trait of stayers of being able to stride slowly for the majority of a race may be termed their “cruise mode” and was exhibited by the last two winners of the St Leger, Kew Gardens and Capri, who both did so for nine of the 14 sectionals (64% of the race) of the world's oldest classic. The former’s figures come from TPD, the latter from my own advanced video analysis.
Let us then look at the key striding indicators of all of the runners in last year’s St Leger.
Kew Gardens proved to be an ideal St Leger horse. Not only was he good enough, he proved capable of switching off for about two-thirds of the race, thereby conserving his stamina without being a plodder.
Lah Ti Dar came up a bit short in the race, as well as in terms of cruise mode, and has been returned to 10f/12f since. Southern France and Dee Ex Bee performed creditably but arguably spent too long cruising and not enough in “revving up”: both have shown very smart form at 14f+ this year.
Perhaps the most interesting figures are those for Old Persian, who had beaten Kew Gardens in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York the start before, but who never entered cruise mode and who weakened having touched as short as 2.12 in running. He has raced only at 12f since, winning a Group 1 in Dubai.
Now, let’s look specifically at the striding signature of Logician, the short-priced favourite for this year’s St Leger. To what degree is he “an ideal St Leger type”, like Capri and Kew Gardens arguably were?
The bad news for connections and supporters of Logician’s rivals is that he is a notably good fit.
Logician not only has maximum and minimum cadence figures usually associated with a middle-distance stayer (as opposed to an out-and-out stayer), he operated in cruise mode for exactly two-thirds of his impressive success in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York. That augurs well for him carrying his ability over the additional two and a half furlongs at Doncaster.
That ability should not be in much dispute, either. Not only was Logician’s time in winning at York fast in absolute terms (at a meeting at which several course records fell), it was fast in relative terms, and deserves to be upgraded on the back of some particularly swift closing sectionals.
Logician’s time from 3f out of 34.66s (my sectionals) equates to a finishing speed of 106.7% of his average race speed – where 101.6% would be par (after taking into account rail movements) – and prompts a 6 lb increase in his timefigure.
A very smart timefigure becomes even better than that when viewed through the prism of sectionals.
Logician is good enough to win a St Leger, and he seems likely to be suited by the test the race presents. Perhaps the main remaining doubt is how he would cope if the ground turned soft: all his runs have been on good or firmer, and York was firm judged on times.
Oh, and there is the small matter of his rivals, of course. None of them seems as good as he is – or as good as a Kew Gardens or a Capri – but few of them could be described as “exposed”, and one or two of them could just come into their own on the Town Moor.
It is, after all, why we run the races in the real world and not just on spreadsheets and through computer models!