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Johnny Ward: Racing's need for a fitness app like Strava and who to back at Cheltenham

Our columnist makes a case for embracing GPS technology in horse racing, and looks ahead to the March festival.

GPS technology could be a huge benefit to horse racing.
GPS technology could be a huge benefit to horse racing.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

MARK BOYLAN WROTE on Monday how it is four years since Satellite Information Services announced it would implement new in-running GPS tracking technology at every Irish track and bring in sectional timing, the holy grail for racing-form disciples in a barren land.

Boylan’s Racing Post piece linked to a piece that I wrote in 2016. The article was of huge personal significance, since I timed it to be a front-page story in the Racing Post on the very day I travelled to London to be interviewed for the post of Irish editor. Sectional timing never happened and I never got the job.

Richie Forristal got the nod instead and I switched to freelance journalism. In truth, it seems a long time ago. Yet, as Boylan pointed out in his article, nothing tangible has happened to realise a promise that was made to Irish racing four and a half years ago.

Last spring, with nothing to do, I took up cycling and was soon informed, only part-jokingly, by the aficionados that “if the cycle isn’t on Strava it didn’t happen”.

Strava, which tracks human exercise and incorporates benign social network features, tells you pretty much everything about your cycle, swim or run: sectional speeds, top speeds, distance covered, wind, elevation gained, calories burned, heart-rate and so on.

Strava might be said to give renewed meaning in life to many middle-aged men. And what a similar GPS-based system could do for racing seems blindingly obvious.

Instead of the scenario painted in 2016, we have Tramore hosting a race in which Al Boum Photo ran in advance of his bid to win a third Gold Cup in March run over a furlong or so farther than advertised on New Year’s Day – only detected because a sectionals buff bothered to have a look at it.

When it comes to drone footage, deploying high definition to maximum benefit, sectionals and many other things, racing is moving at a funeral speed. This also came to mind when RTE showed a camera attached to Sean Flanagan’s helmet after the rider steered Put The Kettle On to finish third to Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown at Christmas.

barry-geraghty-onboard-defi-du-seuil-celebrates-winning Barry Geraghty onboard Defi Du Seuil. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Put The Kettle On, who won the Arkle last year, is far from a sluggish jumper of a fence: indeed, she is officially rated 155, whilst a relatively modest 123 as a hurdler. Yet when watching the footage one thing stuck out like a foreigner in North Korea: how Chacun Pour Soi’s jumping was at another level visually to that of both the mare and her high-class stablemate Notebook.

All the while, we deal in speculation. How high does he get? How efficient is he from leaving the ground to re-meeting it? Think of an equine long jumper.

Chacun Pour Soi has suffered defeat just once over fences for Willie Mullins, that when beaten by A Plus Tard at Leopardstown last season when probably needing the run a bit. Chacun Pour Soi is now 5/4 with William Hill to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase but there are two concerns on that score.

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The first is that he has never run at Cheltenham and the second is related to the first: he does not tend to finish his races especially powerfully, which makes me wonder about alternatives for the feature of day two at the Cheltenham Festival on St Patrick’s Day.

This is not much of a Queen Mother on paper and Defi Du Seuil is the obvious pick at a tasty 20/1 with Hills. Do you recall what price he was sent off in the race last year, or were you on Chacun Pour Soi antepost? Or Altior?

It seems years ago but in ways it summed up a Cheltenham that never really felt right. Altior was a late scratch and then, amazingly, Chacun Pour Soi was also pulled out, leaving 2/5 favourite Defi Du Seuil to apparently just tog out and win.

Defi Du Seuil, such an apparently reliable horse, ran no sort of race. He was pulled up on his return behind Put The Kettle On in November but it’s much easier to forgive him that and the vibes are positive ahead of his return on Saturday in the Clarence House Chase.

A good run will have Defi Du Seuil right back on track and note that the place part of the bet below is 4/1 about Defi Du Seuil finishing in the first three in a race he was long odds-on to win two runs ago.

Recommendation [scale 1-5]
Defi Du Seuil to win Champion Chase, 1pt each-way 20/1

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Johnny Ward

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