Last month, Bristol De Mai won the Betfair Chase by 57 lengths from Cue Card. Or did he? The official distance was 57 lengths. However, the winning distance was not measured in terms of actual horse lengths. The calculation was based on the time it took Cue Card to cross the line in second place. That time underwent a formula called the ‘lengths per second’ scale to decide the winning distance.
A length isn’t actually a unit of distance, it’s a unit of time. The lengths per second scale varies according to the code – Flat, all-weather or jumps – and the going. This makes sense because a horse running on good or fast ground is likely to finish a race faster than one on soft or heavy ground.
How a winning distance can vary
For Flat turf races the scale is six lengths per second on good or quicker, 5.5 for good to soft, five for soft or slower. It is six lengths per second for the all-weather tracks except for Southwell, which has a deeper surface. Thus, Southwell is five lengths per second. Over jumps, good or quicker equates to five lengths per second, good to soft 4.5 lengths, with four lengths for soft or slower.
Cue Card fished 14.25 seconds behind Bristol De Mai on heavy ground, hence the 57 lengths distance at four lengths per second. However, had the race been run on good ground, the distance would have been 71.25 lengths.
Strangely, the scale only varies according to the state of the ground. There is no adjustment for race distance. That can be confusing. Horses will be finishing faster at the end of a five-furlong sprint at Epsom than in a race over two miles or more. But if the ground is the same for both races, the same lengths per second scale applies. Likewise, on heavy ground, horses are more likely to finish faster in a two-mile hurdle than in a four-mile chase.
So, beware of the winning distance. It is not always what it seems.