The last three winners of the world’s oldest classic, the St Leger at Doncaster, have had something in common that may not be immediately obvious.
Capri in 2017, Kew Gardens in 2018 and Logician in 2019 were not only good horses – they ran to 117, 121 and 118 respectively on my figures in their victories – but they strode in a fashion that was perfectly suited to the task in hand.
Striding analysis has been in existence for decades now, but has received a significant boost in Britain in recent years through the provision of stride length and stride frequency measures by Total Performance Data, displayed in the Results Section on this site.
Watch every race of the Pertemps St Leger Festival 2020 live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) from Wednesday 9th to Saturday 12th September.
It became apparent at an early stage that while stride length is associated with ability (longer is better) it is also affected by other factors, like surface speed, inclines/declines and bends.
At the same time, it became clear that stride frequency – or “cadence” – is largely independent of those extraneous factors and a good predictor of stamina.
The latter point can be illustrated by consideration of the maximum and minimum cadences of winners of flat handicaps covered by TPD in Britain up to the end of lockdown. The average value, as well as the Inter-Quartile Range (the middle 50% of a sample), are shown by distance.
So, for instance, if a horse shows a maximum stride frequency of 2.55 strides/second, it falls into the Inter-Quartile Range of typical 5f winners and not into the IQR of any other distance category: it is likely to be a sprinter, and a 5f sprinter at that, by that measure.
If a horse’s minimum cadence is 2.13 strides/second, it is most typical of a 12f winner by that measure but falls into the IQR of anything from 10f to 14f. This decreased sensitivity is a result of the fact that the curve, if these results were plotted on a graph, would flatten as distance increases.
Separate research shows that horses tend to return consistent figures for maximum and minimum cadence, at least after their debuts are behind them. Almost 70% (one standard deviation) of horses produce maximums/minimums that are within 0.04 strides/second of their previous figures from one race to the next regardless of the distances at which those races took place.
So far, so good, and those overall cadence figures provide a good rule of thumb, with sprinters striding more quickly than milers, who in turn stride more quickly than middle-distance horses, who in turn stride more quickly than stayers.
But, as a friend of mine likes to say, “I think you’ll find it’s not quite as simple as that”.
Where candidates for the St Leger are concerned, there is compelling evidence that a required trait for stayers is to be able to “switch off” below a given cadence threshold for a significant proportion of a race.
Using TPD’s figures, 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.
The last three St Leger winners have all gone into “cruise mode” for nine of 14 splits, or 64% of the St Leger distance, whereas very few of their rivals have done. The average cruise-mode proportion for St Leger participants in that time was just 39%.
These are the striding signatures of those three winners, with cruise mode picked out in red (Capri’s figures are taken from video).
The switching off tends to happen early and middle in the race, rather than late, for what should be obvious reasons.
Your ideal St Leger horse needs to relax, then, but not too much, and be able to increase the work-rate when required. They also, as a given, need to have elite ability, which is highly likely to involve a long stride given those cadence signatures.
Logician peaked at 25.8 feet (officially good to firm going), Kew Gardens at 25.6 feet (good) and Capri at 25.2 feet (good to soft) in the St Leger itself. The wider population average is only around 24.4 feet.
What do striding figures say about some of this year’s main contenders? As usual, if you want to find out for non-TPD tracks you will have to do your own spadework.
The following are the vital statistics for eight of the main contenders for this year’s final British classic, namely maximums, minimums, proportion of the race in “cruise mode” (under 2.17 strides/second), as well as my sectional ratings for the horses overall.
Stride length would be nice, but requires accurate sectional times in order to be calculated and are in any case, as has been stated, of limited use without context.
PYLEDRIVER is not only best on sectional ratings – courtesy of a clear-cut win under a penalty in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York – but good enough to win a St Leger at least as often as not. However, he strides most like a 12f/13f performer, and does not switch off as much as ideal.
HUKUM, however, is cast more in the mould of a St Leger horse and should get further than the 13f of his Geoffrey Freer win at Newbury, despite that being primarily a test of speed at the trip. His cruise mode is well-nigh perfect for the job in hand.
As is SERPENTINE’s, as judged by his win in the Derby at Epsom, in which he got clear but did go quickly compared to historical pars. It may be inferred that he has a big stride on him, and horses with big strides and narrow cadence ranges are often best having plenty of use made of them. Serpentine is by no means a certain runner in the St Leger, however.
SANTIAGO has already shown he stays 14f (Queen’s Vase) but not that he is yet good enough to win an up-to scratch St Leger.
SUBJECTIVIST strides slower, and for longer, than a typical St Leger winner (who usually needs to show at least a bit of speed), but could get right in the mix if conditions become testing at Doncaster.