Often we hear that Thursday morning (session 1) is a handicap and that Friday afternoon (session 4) is a bonus. This has been an opinion for years and it came up again after Burghley, and other 4* records, tumbled in the final hour of dressage. So can EquiRatings provide any factual insight on the matter?
Judges are human so we can’t expect them to be void of bias, but time and again our analysis does show that the draw can have an instrumental impact on a competitor’s chance of winning.
At Burghley, based on their 2016 dressage averages, the following sessions should have produced the following averages:
- Thursday morning: 52.8
- Thursday afternoon: 53.2
- Friday morning: 50.3
- Friday afternoon: 50.2
So, according to these recent trends we did expect a slightly higher standard of dressage on Friday. But how did the sessions then perform based on actual averages?
- Thursday morning: 57.1 (4.2 marks higher than trend)
- Thursday afternoon: 53.4 (0.2 marks higher than trend)
- Friday morning: 51.5 (1.2 marks higher than trend)
- Friday afternoon: 46.6 (3.6 marks lower than trend)
It follows a distinct pattern. Thursday morning is a must avoid as competitors will usually score significantly higher than their trending average, while Friday afternoon provides that crucial bonus in the opposite direction. The difference between these two sessions was 7.8 penalties at Burghley, the equivalent of two show jumps or 20 seconds on the cross country.
The intention here is not to criticise but to inform. The above figures can be used to help identify potential shifts in judging scoring patterns. The ground jury at Rio 2016 managed to avoid any session bias so it can be controlled, but frequently it is significant. The significance is the biggest issue. The 7.8 penalty difference between Thursday morning and Friday afternoon represents just half a mark per movement. Or, as it actually happens, quarter of a mark too hard on Thursday and quarter of a mark too easy on Friday.
If one judge felt a combination was working at all 7s, it results in a score of 45. If the other judge thought it was all 7.5s, it brings a score of 37.5, the difference of two show jumps. As with all analysis, a range of questions begin to open up:
Why is our current scoring system placing so much emphasis on dressage? Having a difference of opinion of one mark shouldn’t be such an issue, particularly with judges sat at different positions around the arena, but one mark per movement is currently 15 penalties, almost four show jumps and over 37 seconds on the cross country.
Comparing Jonelle Price and Christopher Burton at Burghley asks the question of balance between the phases. Burto was 18.3 marks ahead after dressage (an average of just 1.2 marks per movement). Jonelle was four seconds faster on the cross country and had one fence down versus the four of Burto. Chris won and still had 4.7 marks in hand over Jonelle (3rd) so could have had a fifth fence down and stayed ahead of her.
Is that balance right for eventing? Are we promoting the right type of horse for the sport or is that one mark per movement placing too much emphasis on the first phase? How many hours do people spend training in the cross country phase versus training in the dressage phase, and is that in the best interest of keeping the sport safe?