James Willoughby: Adayar's visceral Derby victory bore hallmarks of Frankel

By James Willoughby
Mon 7 Jun 2021

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Some people don’t know that horse racing is the greatest game. They should have been disabused for eternity by the Cazoo Derby at Epsom.

What we saw was not just a horse race but an extraordinary sign of things to come: two and a half minutes of neon blue.

Simply explained, Adayar won the Derby because his pedigree had bestowed him having better athletic tools than all the rest. He looked like the kid who captains the school team at rugby, cricket and football. He was bigger, stronger and, yes, faster than the others. He beat them hollow before even getting to the strongest part of his game.

The signature moment was this: three furlongs out, Adayar lifted those hefty shoulders and smashed open a gap that was there because he made it.

Frankel size, Frankel stride, awesome Frankel power.

Watch a full replay of Adayar's success in the Cazoo Derby

Over the years, the spectacle of the Derby sometimes flickers on and off. And, recently, we have endured a period where the power supply was variable. Some recent winners have failed to go on (who knows? Adayar himself could follow that path) but the Derby remains the medium for a vital message – where for breeders to go next with the thoroughbred.

Many experienced in bloodstock at the highest level are now more certain where the breed is going. The sights and shapes and impressions of this Derby are game-changing. It wasn’t just the winner who would have made them think about Frankel but the third, Hurricane Lane (who lost both front shoes) too. As he walked round the paddock, he looked like a different breed of ginger cat.

Galileo is far from finished yet, but Frankel burnished his own sire’s genetic gift and has the potency to produce horses who can do the same. Why? Because they have better athletic tools. True, some cannot carry their physique and may appear a little slow, but breeders are now only just optimising their choice of mares for Frankel. The best is yet to come.

This is how the game goes: you may be able to breed champions from horses who were not that good at horse racing, but you will breed more and better champions from ones that were.

And this was the purest, most exciting, most thunderous impact of the Derby. It hit the thoughtful viewer like a wrecking ball during the race and after the race. It was vivid and visceral, and no matter how the form works out it will persist in the mind.

Nothing is going to change the reality of the 2021 Derby: at a tempo which lilted a bit early but was solid to the core after, one horse spent the race waiting for his chance while others spent it clinging on to theirs.

When Adayar broke in a bit of a tangle from the inside stall – which is a big disadvantage and remains provably so – it seemed like he was on the way to another display which hinted at what he might have to offer without delivering on the promise; he was fast becoming that kind of colt.

In the Lingfield Derby Trial, he had climbed the hill like a monster but come over it like a lamb. In the Classic Trial at Sandown, he had powered home in vain against the powerful, rail-favouring inside bias? (Even Brigadier Gerard would have looked unconvincing running in the middle of the track that day, though Joe Mercer would probably have never taken him there.)

'Relentless late progress' was how Simon Holt called Adayar's second at Sandown

Soon, however, there was Adayar in the ‘cat-bird seat’, travelling along behind the lead on the rail, not a bother on him. We had seen smooth travelling from Adayar before, but this was something else entirely.

The critical distance into a horse race is 50 seconds. Here it is that the horse’s system begins a switchover which makes it the greatest all-round athlete on the planet. It takes this long for its awesome power to rely on a preponderance of atmospheric oxygen, so when its gigantic spleen contracts, it fires trillions of oxygen-bearing red blood cells to its powerful muscles and its movement is thus empowered.

You know the thing about the winning post at Epsom being a plank of wood and all? Well, that oft-used quote by the Italian genius Federico Tesio came about not because he preferred the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and you could run races in three heats over six miles. It came to him intuitively because of the way the Derby course at Epsom challenges the way a horse’s system works.

That 50 seconds comes up shortly before they have finished climbing the hill, which is the first half-mile. Because a horse is galloping up the steepest section of track in British racing, immediately it starts to use up the reserves of energy that resides in its tissues and is available at the start. It soon needs a second source.

Here, the first-half for Adayar went in 57.42sec. A good tempo. Not slow enough to let the flimsy milers in the field get away with it, but not fast enough to be reductive of pure talent.

Now, the pace steadied a bit. Adayar ran 14.16sec for the next furlong. He is building, getting stronger, at home with what the race is asking, right in its midst now.

The next quarter, still a bit uphill, in 26.71 from him. Nothing really changes.

Now, Adayar is getting stronger, threatening to even cruise along. He has the time to fill up because speed isn’t just about fast-twitch explosion, the instantaneous way Battaash does it. Speed is an important equation for all horses: stride length X stride frequency. You can stride fast or you can stride long. Better both like Frankel.

Speed and stamina are not different qualities, they are complementary. Tesio told us that in Breeding The Racehorse from where that snazzy quote comes.

When very young children compete at the primary school sports day, precocity in different forms wins over ten yards, tenacity on different days wins over 20, but talent wins the same way every day at 30. Here, 30 yards is the critical distance for kids.

Those crusty old characters in Newmarket with their old copies of Thoroughbred Breeder’s Review on the shelf, they get it. There is speed and there is cheap speed. Adayar’s particular brand of speed was no good at Sandown and no good at Lingfield, because he was forced to burn energy and needed a more expansive test.

When the field sees the mile-pole in the Derby, it is game on. Now, the concern is to have the cruising speed to stay underneath the rate that a horse can take in that oxygen. You see what Tesio saw? One half-mile to empty the lesser ones, another half to let the great ones fill up.

As they turned in, Adam Kirby must have felt like he was living a dream. Not a Shergar dream, like his old mentor the great Walter Swinburn, but a dream in which he has still to play an active part: in front of him is the barrier of the toiling Gear Up, to his right is goodness knows what. He could yet wake up screaming!

Instead, in the way reverie can be outsized of normal life, Kirby threw the reins at Adayar with bravery forged from the great heart he has always shown as a jockey. An All-Weather jockey? That is a badge of courage for Kirby from where I am sitting as a viewer.

While some were emptying, Adayar had filled up. For the first time in his life, he was racing underneath his cruising speed, allowing the oxygen to build and the energy to flow. And, in this state, Adayar may have felt the same about going for that gap as his rider. Suddenly, stride length X stride frequency had an exponential term.

There cannot be a match in world racing for what followed. Down the hill, across the camber, Adayar was like the Bear in We’re Going On A Bear Hunt – he couldn’t go round Gear Up, he couldn’t go over Gear Up, so come on Adam, let’s go through Gear Up! And, here we go!

Gear Up doesn’t know how lucky he was. One false step and he could have been wiped out by the force of nature coming through. To think: we had called Adayar ‘a Leger horse’. This phrase needs to stop being used as a term of diminution because using it to suggest a horse like Adayar lacks gears is like using ‘the actress in Titanic’ to sum up what Kate Winslet can do.

If a race forces a horse above its cruising speed – this term being a proxy for the rate at which it can metabolise oxygen – it denudes it. Stayers have speed; stayers can quicken. This is partly why people love stayers. The best way to get a stayer beaten is to go off too fast.

Adayar had not gone too fast. On the other side of the gap, he laid it down despite the vagaries of the surface. Now, jaws dropped and it was all over. How far? In the plate, Kirby must have felt a bigger surge of adrenalin than his mount had when he forced himself - and barely daylight - inside Gear Up.

Afterwards, Kirby nobly regretted that he was not much use to his mount inside the final furlong. “Weirdly, I was thinking of my Mum,” he said. Swinburn had made sure that Kirby rides with his head in the time they had together, but the role of his heart is particular to the rider’s own make-up. What a line.

Never mind the future, feel the present

When Gold medals are handed out at the Olympics, images of the great athletes passing the line are often mixed in transparently. Nobody says: “Let’s see how the form works out in the Diamond League. The Swede in second holds the form down.”

Some of racing’s reportage misses the point. Nobody finds ante-post quotes rocking them to their soul. Tomorrow is another day, but for this one we have images to which we can react, and times and sectionals to guide us. Adayar’s time translates to a figure which is above-average for the race and you cannot cheat time. But these new tools we have are supposed to augment our understanding, not replace it. People who know sectionals know that.

Frankel is by Galileo, while Adayar’s dam Anna Salai is by Dubawi. Galileo, Dubawi and Frankel are three of four greatest sires on Earth, while the fourth is Deep Impact, who sired a horse called Snowfall we will come to in a while.

Pedigree may not be everything if you are trying to win any old race, but it had run through the Derby results in different forms until we have ended up here.

The ground was too slow for Adayar to set any records, but the result of pedigree has resulted in a strong trend of Derby winners recording faster and faster times – despite watering.

Snowfall becomes a blizzard

The first thing you needed to know about the Oaks afterwards was the time. Of course, racing’s focus being what it is now, the viewer may as well have been watching Antiques Roadshow or Escape To The Country to find it. But, when a horse wins by 16 lengths like Snowfall did, a horse’s effort needs a better measuring stick than a shower of fillies who could not crack three figures.

Snowfall comes home 16 lengths clear in the Cazoo Oaks

It turned out that Snowfall had excelled. It was not a meltdown. It was not an illusion. The daughter of Deep Impact had not, to use that awful word, been “flattered”. Anything but.

Snowfall stopped the clock at 2min 42.67 which was only 0.44sec slower than the four-year-old Pyledriver in the Coral Coronation Cup. This is a top-notch accomplishment which finds strictly its equivalent in what Adayar did in 2min 36.85sec the following day. (The latter had 21 yards less to traverse and a fresh strip of drying ground to race on).

We can use the Course Track sectional times to compare how all four races over a mile and a half on Derby weekend were run in relative terms. First, the raw data and an explanation of those metrics on the right-hand side:

The races are arranged in descending order of Last 3f%. This is a standard metric to understand the way races are run by sectionals, often referenced in Australia and Japan: calculate the average speed of the last three furlongs, divide it by that for the race as a whole (including the last three furlongs) and multiply by 100.

Figures over 100% indicate a fast finish and figures under 100% a slow finish – in relative terms. Every course and distance has a relatively narrow range of Last 3f% ratios which correspond with horses running ‘personal bests’ (if you will).

For the mile and a half at Epsom, finishing splits of efficiently-run races will always come out much greater than 100% because the finish is easy compared with the first half-mile. The race is net uphill, in other words. A range of about 111% to 113% seems about right, though it depends on the ground and the wind strength and direction (for Snowfall and Pyledriver, on Oaks day, the wind averaged 8mph from compass direction 350, perpendicular to the straight which runs in direction 286, while on Derby day the wind averaged 5mph in compass direction 240, again across the runners) which was thankfully roughly equal on both Oaks and Derby day.

Finishing splits which use the last three furlongs can be a huge oversimplification. It is better to consider every fraction of a race and look at the variance between even pace (which implies efficiency) and the pace the horse actually described.

For the four races described, we can convert the horse’s splits into percentages for every section and colour code them so that red is a hot (or fastish) pace, orange is a warm (or average) pace and blue is a cold (or slowish) pace – relative to the horse’s own capabilities, of course:

Now, we have a better, multi-dimensional idea of how each race was run. It is important to remember here that the blue and red sections do not represent massive deviations from even pace (which is why they are described as ‘ish’) but help us to understand the emphasis on that horse in that section of the race.

Adayar was paced well during the Derby, but these numbers are what physicists call ‘stroboscopic’ and still don’t really capture the ‘races within a race’, the sometimes split-second moves that horses make to go through a gap or take command of a race. We need a continuous measure of position for that, the line of a graph from which we can measure gradients and swept out area, but first things first. Let’s get a beat on the basic data of sectionals.

Uncertainty, thy name is ‘the future’.

The point about the Derby here is that Adayar went Adayar pace and nothing else was capable of the same.

The Oaks winner Snowfall found herself in a slightly more tactical encounter and finished relatively fast to draw well clear of the bedraggled field. Above, I said that the Derby and Oaks times represent very similar accomplishments on the clock relative to conditions. Here, however, we have finer evidence.

I would say that Snowfall is a better racehorse than Adayar because her deviation from even pace was greater in the run. I think she would beat Adayar in a match race. But likely not by much.

But what about the Coronation Cup winner Pyledriver (and the neck second, Al Aasy, for that matter)? He had a much tougher trip against the clock because he was asked to go harder early and finished outside the range we normally associate with efficiency. We know that the son of Harbour Watch does not have to run like this, but was brilliantly ridden by Martin Dwyer to expose the weakness of his main rival in the finish. So, how does he compare?

Pyledriver and Martin Dwyer outmuscle Al Aasy to win the Coronation Cup

We have to remember that the above figures do not include the effect of different weights carried by the winner. And, if and when Pyledriver meets the two three-year-olds, he would be conceding gobs of weight-for-age (and a 3lb sex allowance to Snowfall, also). He and Al Aasy would be underdogs to beat the younger brigade, but again not by much.

But all of this is in the gift of the future. Now we have seen the Epsom Classics, the present is a good enough place to be.

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