20 March 2023
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch wonders why two-horse races are so difficult to predict.
Boris Rankov is someone who knows something about the Boat Race. He won it with Oxford six times between 1978 and 1983, three times in the “4” seat and three times in the “5” seat. He subsequently umpired the men’s race four times. In a 2003 interview, he suggested that one of the reasons that the race was still popular with the non-rowing, non-Oxford, non-Cambridge public was because of its “unpredictably.”
Even during Cambridge’s unbroken run of wins between 1924 and 1936, and Oxford’s between 1976 to 1985, I suspect that every year there was always the hope or the fear (depending on allegiance) that the underdog “could just do it.” Further, a look at the men’s results since 1829 seems to show that, since 2000, the age of long sequences of wins by one or the other university is over.
Sponsorship has resulted in increasing professionalism and the best coaching, facilities and equipment. This has produced more of an aquatic “level playing field” with crews usually far more evenly matched than in the past when the race would often be over by Hammersmith.
The women have only had parity with the men since 2015 and have understandably taken time to put out more evenly matched crews. In their first five races on the Tideway, 2015 – 2019, the winning margins were large, but the 2021 and 2022 results were closer to those commonly produced by the men.
All this aside, the obvious difficulty in trying to predict the winners of the Boat Race (which now seems to be the collective noun for the four races held on Boat Race Day) is that the annually formed unique crews are training for only one race and strenuously avoid racing their opposition until The Big Day. The one semi-exception to this was November’s Fours Head.
I summarised the Oxbridge Fours Head results in my post of 6 December. Members of both the men’s and women’s squads from both universities took part. The men seemed to have had their strongest oarsmen in the Championship Coxed Fours and the results in this boat class showed no significant difference between the two clubs.
The women’s results showed Cambridge to be stronger. It is possible that Oxford made the coxless four their top championship boat, but whatever the case, Cambridge’s top championship coxed four was nearly four seconds faster than their opponents without a cox and twenty-three seconds faster than those with.
The best public indicators of performance are the Boat Race Club Fixtures. To quote to official explanation:
The Boat Race Club Fixtures, when top British and foreign crews race potential Oxford and Cambridge Blue and reserve crews, usually over sections of the Putney to Mortlake course, are an important part of the Boat Race Season. They are both a selection test and a provider of key race practice, giving the experience of competing against top-class opposition and also providing opportunities for the rowers and coxes to simulate race day as much as possible. They get to know the course, can practise routines and starts, get to race on both the Surrey and the Middlesex stations and have the experience of being officially umpired.
The official fixtures were held between 22 January and 12 March. I have summarised the “A” Crew results in the tables below.
For both the men and women, the most interesting results are those from Fixtures where the Oxford and the Cambridge crews have raced the same clubs. These are not, however, fair comparisons. The crews on both sides can have different compositions and different seating orders on different days. The Blue’s opponents are not always able to put out their best crews. Further, the later a Fixture was held, the more the Oxbridge crew should be closer to “peaking” in their training for Boat Race Day. Whatever the problems, a comparison of the results of Fixtures against the same club is still worth doing.
While Oxford seemed to do very slightly better than Cambridge against Thames, the Light Blues, unlike the Dark, did get one significant victory over Leander. As with the men, the most interesting results come from racing Brookes. Oxford Brookes is the strongest student club in the country and this year for the first time, the Brookes women seem to be as strong as their men. Neither of the Oxbridge women’s crews could reasonably expect to beat Brookes but Cambridge should have been pleased with a loss by “only” 1 ¾ lengths over half the course (though there is always the possibility that Brookes were saving themselves for the second piece).
Only Cambridge raced the Dutch and, while this may sound churlish, their victory in the first piece was more due to the visitor’s inexperience of the Tideway than the Light Blue’s boat speed. The Dutch learned quickly and their win in the second piece was more reflective of their abilities. The race can be seen on YouTube.
The races against Brookes (only a week apart) showed both Blue boats losing by very similar margins over the same distances. Up to this point, most people who claim to know about these things held that there was very little between the Oxford and the Cambridge men’s “A” boats.
However, on 12 March there was a marvellous race between Oxford and Leander in which the Dark Blues won by 1 ¼ lengths. Oxford led off the start, Leander then took the lead and there followed a clash of oars that Leander would have been disqualified for had it been a normal race. Despite Oxford coming off worse from the clash, they clawed their way back past Leander and, when the race hit terrible Tideway water, dealt with the conditions much better than their opponents and maintained their lead. The Dark Blues did everything that a Boat Race crew should be able to do and coach Sean Bowden must have been very pleased.
Tom Ransley’s report of the Oxford – Leander fixture is here and a recording of the race is on the Boat Race YouTube Channel. At the finish, race commentator Martin Cross asked the question, “Has Oxford rowed their way into being favourites for this year’s Boat Race?” Oxford has clearly found more speed since they raced Brookes. We will only find out if Cambridge has done the same on 26 March.
The 77th Women’s Boat Race, the 51st Women’s Reserve Race (Osiris v Blondie), the 58th Men’s Reserve Race (Isis v Goldie) and the 168th Men’s Boat Race will be on Sunday, 26 March 2023.
As a resident of Oxford I wish they would pick the strongest University crew to represent the City. Oxford Brookes would have a much better chance of winning than OUBC or OUWBC.
You could also move Henley to Dorney or abandon oars for engines – but it wouldn’t be the same would it?