It has been said that the best jumps horse in training is Big Buck’s. As a student of times and sectionals, I have no truck for that. The best and most talented jumps horse is Hurricane Fly. When he won last year’s Champion Hurdle, the brilliance of his effort was disguised by the run of the race. The sectionals here enables the reader to make a direct comparison on the clock between the Champion and Supreme Novices’.

It is easy to see that the early pace in the Supreme was much stronger. The race might have been run over two miles and half a furlong, but the qualities it emphasised were more those belonging to three-milers. Indeed, the winner Al Ferof may well turn out best over a significantly longer trip, making his effort in the two-mile Victor Chandler Chase this season all the more praiseworthy.

While an experienced eye could doubtless have reached a similar conclusion about the Supreme, I seriously doubt even the most experienced race-watcher could have properly analysed the Champion Hurdle without the objective data provided by sectional times. That Hurricane Fly clocked a slower time in the Champion than Al Ferof in the Supreme is no basis to compare the merit of the two horses. Instead, it was a reflection of the contrasting way both races were run.

Walsh has said the relatively steady pace of the Champion caused Hurricane Fly to race too keenly

Understanding that detail from 12 months ago is extremely relevant in anticipating that we might see a much more commanding display this year. As his other performances have hinted, this is a horse capable of winning a Champion Hurdle in dominating fashion – not scrambling home like last year.

Look again at the sectionals. Hurricane Fly – held up in midfield – reached the fourth-last nearly three and a half seconds slower than Al Ferof in the Supreme, despite the latter being patiently ridden by the jockey who was on both horses, Ruby Walsh.

Walsh has said the relatively steady pace of the Champion caused Hurricane Fly to race too keenly, a tendency he now attributes to immaturity. He had already run 11 times over hurdles but it always pays to take Walsh at his word. What happened in the Champion did Hurricane Fly no favours at all. No doubt mindful of the steady gallop, Jason Maguire on the leader Peddlers Cross kicked for home. As the field were still relatively fresh, this served to compress the Champion into a furious middle-section between the fourth-last hurdle and last, during which the speed horses reached was going to be unsustainable.

Look at the column under ‘to line’ in the table below. The Champion Hurdle horses were better than those in the Supreme and they had run at a slower early pace, yet Hurricane Fly and Peddlers Cross could still not run as fast a split time for the run-in as Al Ferof had.

This type of slow-fast-slow pattern is common in top-class races, both over jumps and on the Flat. Among good horses, there is a preponderance of ability to accelerate, so the early pace tends to err on the cautious side. But, faced with this type of race, many riders are keen to make the first move (and even keener, perhaps, to be credited with enterprise) and the pace peaks too far from home for the horses to run evenly.

For this reason and others related to pace, it is a fact that the tempo of the majority of a race is not conducive to the winner showing full superiority. Races like the Champion, in effect, have the tendency to drag the best horse towards the level of inferiors – not that having to struggle with Peddlers Cross is any real disgrace.

The comparison between the Champion and Supreme also led to another hidden gem last year, one that has been polished for all to see this season: owing to the strong pace, the best horse did not win the Supreme.

Sprinter Scare, beaten five lengths in third by Al Ferof, was ridden too aggressively in the circumstances by AP McCoy. He was kicked ahead three out off the strong fractions and led the field while going strongly running down the hill. But in hitting his peak speed so far out, the efficiency of his muscles would have been severely compromised before the final flight and he duly faded up the hill. He can make up for that in this year’s Arkle.

Winners’ sectional times: Supreme Novices’ & Champion Hurdle 2011
Elapsed time
Winner to 2nd 4th 3 out last line
Al Ferof 49.3 116.1 173.6 216.6 229.5
Hurricane Fly 51.0 119.5 174.7 217.1 230.4

Split time
Winner to 2nd 4th 3 out last line
Al Ferof 49.3 66.8 57.5 43.0 12.9
Hurricane Fly 51.0 68.5 55.2 42.4 13.3

Times in seconds and specific to each horse