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The photo-finish separates the horses by time lapse, but a calculation is then done on this  accurate information and put into the published results as lengths or fractions of a length behind the winner. ( 



In the old days race course judges did not have the luxury of modern technology to measure the beaten distance of the finishers in a race.

Hence the measurement of “length” was used.  

The most accurate way of separating horses in those days  was to look at the length of the winner and then calculate how many of those lengths the others were behind.
Of course, this included the fractional measurements such as short-head, half-a-length etc.
This measurement does aid commentators in the modern world, who can use the same method to adjudge how far behind certain horses are in the running.
Admittedly the use of this archaic form of measurement means astute racing people are able to  paint a picture when listening to a commentary. 
However, it is the only form of racing in the world that does not use time as the official measurement of separation.
For example in athletics the runner up will be adjudged to have finished 1,27 seconds behind the winner and in F1 racing they might even take it to a further decimal point.
The strange thing about it is that the modern photo finish system is able to record the exact time the tip of every horse’s nose goes past the post.
There are some who believe the photo finish is a snap shot, but it is in fact a rolling picture of each horse as it crosses the line.
A good example to illustrate this point can be seen in Race 7 at Hollywoodbets Greyville on Wednesday.
In a screenshot taken of the finish as the winner crossed the line, the fast-finishing horse who officially finished in third place is still in fourth place and the fast-finishing horse who officially finished fifth is still in sixth place.
The below pictures are 1) the screenshot and 2) the official photo finish.

However, what is strange is that  the judge will measure the horses off the photo-finish, which has been unravelled according to pin-point accurate times, and then provide official separation in lengths.
The handicapping is then done on the lengths measurements … not on the times.
Racing purists would probably prefer to know the beaten distances in lengths. 
But should it be the official method?
This point was brought up by UK sectional timing expert Simon Rowlands, who noticed that the top horse Little Big Bear was adjudged to have won a race in Ireland earlier this month by seven lengths … but had the race been run in Britain he would have been adjudged to have won it by only six lengths.
He explained, “Margins in results are conversions of time lapses between the horses, done rigidly according to the official going description in Britain for the last 25 years (and at 6 lengths per second on good ground or firmer), but calculated on an ad-hoc basis in Ireland. The time lapse between Little Big Bear and Persian Force, the next horse home, was 1.01s. A “length” in Britain is unlikely to be the same as a “length” in Ireland, never mind elsewhere around the world, in other words. That is why anyone assessing racehorse performance properly should always look to use the individual times recorded rather than a fixed pounds-per-length conversion. Finishing times for Individual horses in Ireland are embedded in the results on while the same in Britain are to be found in the results on the BHA site. Remarkably, such crucial information still does not exist in any data feed that I know of despite having been requested for over 20 years now. “
The finishing time of each horse is provided in form data in South Africa, but if you want to know how much time the horse finished behind the winner you have to work it out yourself.
There is also the question of how long a length is?
The Americans generalise a length to be 9 feet or about 2.74 metres.
However, in South Africa the length is just seen as the length of the winner … just as it was a hundred years ago. The fact that the winner of one race could be longer from nose to tail than the winner of another race is not taken into account. 
These anomalies will at most make only a marginal difference to the handicapping of a race.
A factor that is probably more significant is the layout of a course.
For example, horses at a tight track like Hollywoodbets Greyville are invariably going to finish closer together than at a galloping track like Turffontein Standside … for obvious reasons.
This anomaly can be seen in the current early season three-year-old merit ratings.
Horses running down a straight over a 1200m course with a tough uphill climb to the finish i.e. Hollywoodbets Scottsville, are likely to finish more spread out than in a Hollywoodbets Greyville 1600m event, which can turn into a canter and a sprint for home.
Cousin Casey would be voted as a better horse than Sweet Pepper by a likely landslide margin, but the latter is rated 115 against the former’s 113.
The reason for this is simply because the handicappers are reluctant to give a high rating to a Hollywoodbets Greyville Grade 1 winner as it would mean the close up finishers will have to be given unrealistically high merit ratings.     
The handicappers are then criticised by people who do not take into account that in SA they are not actually allowed to simply go on their educated opinion, but are rather bound by such factors as line horse theory and various guidelines.