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Espom and Ascot: A Contrast in Styles

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This post is the second in a series of posts that will chronicle the experiences of an American horseplayer (your truly) stepping into the land of the unfamiliar, thoroughbred racing in the U.K.  Over the next two weeks I'll be attending race meetings at such famous courses as Epsom Downs, Ascot and Newmarket.  Last Wednesday I spent the afternoon at Epsom Downs, while yesterday I was treated to a day at the famous Ascot Racecourse.

I'm not going to write too much about the race-by-race betting experiences at Epsom or Ascot, except to make the following note: I was fantastic at picking horses to finish 2nd all day long yesterday.  I'll also point out that the winner of the first race, Miss Work Of Art (5/1), was my top pick in that spot but a situation with a pesky cash machine that apparently didn't like Yank debit cards prevented me from getting a bet down on her.  Once I found a American-friendly card machine (a Barclays machine, for those wondering which work best for us foreigners), I saw Metropolitan Miss (16/1), St Moritz (8/1), and Akmal (8/1) all run second in their respective races.  Margot Did was my one chalk play and she responded by finishing third at odds of approximately 2/1.  The 19-horse finale at one mile on the straight saw me go back and forth on Nelson's Bounty (14/1) and Duster (25/1).  I went with Duster who didn't run a lick, while Nelson's Bounty took home the top prize.  It's never easy, is it?

Aside from the ups and downs (and downs) of betting, the trips to Ascot and Epsom provided a front-row seat for an excellent education on the differences in courses within England (and all of Europe) and the impact on individual results.  In the U.S. most of our courses are very much alike - oval shaped tracks with a small, tight-turned turf course in the middle.  Sure, there are a few exceptions - Santa Anita downhill, Woodbine's turf, Kentucky Downs, and larger tracks like Belmont and Arlington that feature wider courses - but the basic layout is the same all over.  The similar nature of our courses creates situations that we can expect in terms of race shapes from track to track.  Measurements of time are of great importance since it is much easier to compare splits and final times from track to track - the fundamental race shape is the same almost everywhere (even if tracks differ slightly from place to place). 

In England (and the rest of Europe), things are quite different.  Comparisons of time, while important, are less easy to compare.  Every course is different - different layouts, different undulations, different positions where the winning move is made - and all those factors appear to create a "single-course bias".  Just as a player is foolish to ignore tracks in the U.S. that produce strong biases for speed or position, it appears players are equally foolish to ignore the unique nature of courses in Europe.

The first thing I took note of at Epsom Downs was the severe climb horses make in any race that begins on the backside of the course, namely any race scheduled for a mile to a mile and a half.  The famous Epsom Derby begins at the lowest point on the course and involves a climb to the highest portion of the course during the first five furlongs.  (Racing Post Course Profile: Epsom Downs)

In the U.S. racing, speed is most effective when it doesn't have to work hard in the early stages, a principle that holds true pretty much everywhere horses are raced on the planet.  The main difference between a course like Epsom Downs and your garden-variety turf course in America, is the work a frontrunner will have to do in the early stages.  It's no wonder that speed is less effective in a race like the Epsom Derby given the amount of energy an early leader would have to do in the first four and half furlongs.  In a portion of the race where early speed needs to work as little as possible, the Epsom Derby requires a horse to climb from the lowest portion of the course to the highest.  Only a horse of exceptional stamina is able to make every yard a winning one under those conditions.

Once a horse has survived the climb to the highest portion of Epsom, things become much different as the final four furlongs are on a severe downhill portion of the course.  During the first few races at Epsom I expected to see the winners making late moves inside the final furlong and winning by a length or so at the wire after making the final ½ furlong climb to the finish.  I quickly realized that the winning point comes much soon and that victorious horses put away their on the downhill portion of the course - whether winning from the front or the rear - and that the final uphill climb to the wire, while certainly taxing, appeared to be a less of a defining portion of the course.

The effectiveness of speed at a course like Epsom Downs should offer us clues as to the kinds of horses that might see reversals in form upon shipping to the U.S. to take part in some of our races during the summer.  If you had a horse that was coming out of a race at Epsom, is a frontrunner, and tired badly in the stretch of a race at a mile or mile and a quarter, and is then entered in something like the 10 furlong Arlington Million, might that horse relish the opportunity to run on a course that doesn't require an uphill climb right out of the gate?  While not every horse will prefer a more American style of racing, part of the task of figuring out which European shippers might be most effective in the U.S. is figuring out what causes a horse to win or lose a race in their homeland. 

At Ascot, site of the famous Royal Ascot meet every June, the conditions are somewhat different than those at Epsom.  Ascot is a triangular shaped course with races running right-handed with a long straight featuring a gradual climb all the way to the finish line.  (Racing Post Track Profile: Ascot)  During my visit yesterday the ground was listed as "Good to Firm" and it appeared that speed could perform fairly well under the conditions, relatively speaking.  The two-mile race that began near the end of the three furlong marker begins on a gradual climb to the first turn and then proceeds down a long decline into the second turn.  This appeared to have the effect of allowing the frontrunner a bit of a breather during the early/middle furlongs, and in yesterday's race the leader, Akmal (GB), held on for a game second after being passed in the final furlong by the winner, Askar Tau (FR).

Based on a small, single day comparison of the two locations, Epsom appears to be a course where the winning move is generally made during the steep decline between the four furlong and the ½ furlong marks.  At Ascot, the winning move appeared to come a bit later in the proceedings during the long, gradual climb to the wire.  Additionally, Ascot's five furlong springs are run on a straight that has rises and falls during the journey while Epsom's is a complete downhill straight until the final ½ furlong.  Based on small comparisons, Ascot's sprints require a bit more staying power while Epsom would appear to be all about the speed as they rush down the hill towards the wire.

Besides the important factors of course layouts and undulations, ground conditions are of a paramount importance.  I completely tossed Zacinto in the third race on the basis of the going - Zacinto had not performed well on Good to Firm ground and appeared to need softer going to be at his best.  Because European racing will take place on much more variable conditions than our turf races (where we pretty much take anything off the grass at the first sight of rain), it's especially important to note which horses prefer which type of ground as some just don't want anything to do with an overly fast or slow course.

Up Next: The Guineas Festival at Newmarket - Saturday and Sunday

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