Willoughby: Camelot defeat exposes inconvenient St Leger truth
Sunday 23 September 2012
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What a massive disappointment. Camelot’s defeat in the St Leger last week was a dent to his reputation and a blow to the race. The various excuses advanced for him – lack of stamina, a poor ride by Joseph O’Brien – simply don’t stand up to the facts provided by the sectional times.
Just before the half-mile pole, Camelot and Encke, the winner, were similarly positioned towards the rear. Encke’s times for each of the last four furlongs were an estimated 11.5sec, 11.2, 12.2, 12.9 while Camelot’s were 11.5sec, 11.3, 12.4, 12.6.
That is cold, hard data (whatever the limitations of its precise measurement by stopwatch) not the subjective impression of the eye.
Let’s break that down: Encke ran the fastest single furlong (11.2sec for 3f-2f out) and it is therefore likely that he reached a higher maximum speed than Camelot. He simply quickened better than the runner-up who gained ground on him late only as the Godolphin colt paid for the exertions of his race-winning move.
Camelot stayed the Leger trip better than his rivals, but he got his jockey O’Brien into trouble – not the other way round – because he didn’t have the requisite tactical speed.
This is so often the same case with so-called “unlucky” losers and a general misapprehension from which a lot of winning punters profit.
It seems like Camelot goes as fast off the bridle as he does on it. He wins races – whether over the mile of the Guineas or the mile and a half of the Derby – by outstaying and outgalloping his rivals – not by outpacing them.
It didn’t help him that the Leger was slowly-run to the straight, but we may be making a serious mistake if we come up with excuses and don’t give the beautifully bred winner credit: Encke is a very smart colt in his own right.
The interesting thing about Camelot’s defeat is that it underlined an inconvenient truth for racing purists. Every year, the sages berate the connections of smart three-year-olds for swerving the Leger, but the truth is that the race represents a bad risk for prospective stallions: it is a gruelling test which brings the best horses down to a level at which they are vulnerable.
And, if a top horse like Camelot gets beaten in the Leger, it emboldens the experts to downgrade it.
Before the Leger, Timeform referred to Camelot as a “certainty” with due reason: it is good to hear the Halifax firm stating strong opinions nowadays. But, after the race they took a sharply contrasting tone, casting doubt on the strength of his Derby form.
Timeform’s conviction that Camelot is not as good as everyone thought may be some function of what the Leger does to horses: it magnifies their weaknesses, makes them look bad in defeat, just as breeders have always feared. And it is always the latest piece of evidence that weighs heaviest on the human mind.
At this point, a purist might say: “Good for the Leger that it does this! It brings the light of truth! We should be encouraging breeders to run their Derby winners.”
That’s praiseworthy, I agree, but the Leger has a low upside and a huge downside for the commercially minded – even when you are trying to associate a colt with Nijinsky by winning the Triple Crown.