Once, as a moderately precocious schoolboy, I came top of a geography exam. How this came about surprised me and baffled my teachers, especially the geography teacher. If anyone had chalked up prices on the likely result of this geography exam odds of 33/1 could easily be laid against me coming out on top. I had no form, you see, had shown no ability for the subject in the previous two years of study. I can think that the more adept of my fellow classroom pupils must have suffered an off day or were perhaps only gaining complimentary reviews of their course work as the opposition was so poor. Either way, I came top and was elevated to the upper division of the secondary school where inevitably I floundered, never to show such promise again. You see, on the basis of that one result I received an inflated rating I could not live up to.
This regularly happens to racehorses. 2-year-olds in maidens run within a length or two of a horse that goes on to win a Group race and for seasons after their rating puts them near the top of handicaps they cannot win or they must race in conditions and Group races that they equally lack the ability to win. The same happens in novice chases, which is the reason why these races end up with two or three runners.
My dislike of ratings is especially relevant in the light of Bristol De Mai’s demolition of the opposition in the Betfair Chase. He won by 57 lengths. Not only a record for a race of the calibre of the Betfair but also a damning indictment of ground conditions frequently to be found at Haydock.
I suspect Bristol De Mai would have won if the ground had been good-to-soft but his new rating will be based on a race where the opposition, as when I came top of that geography exam, ran well below what they are capable of achieving. It was a sad sight, in what is arguably the third top conditions chase in the country, to see horses of the quality of Cue Card and Tea For Two clambering over the final two fences and finishing so tired that collapse seemed only a few strides away.
To my mind the Betfair was so unrepresentative of the abilities of the runners that I would prefer the handicapper to sit on his hands and leave all the horses on their pre-Betfair ratings, including the winner.
Ask any racegoer under the age of fifty to name the best chaser he or she has seen and the majority will answer Kauto Star or, at his very best, Sprinter Sacre. But anyone who did not give Arkle as their answer would be wrong, very wrong. Arkle remains officially the top-rated chaser of all-time at 212 yet there are people who believe Kauto Star to be superior. They speak not so much through ignorance but through the dictates of their hearts. To them Kauto will always be the best, as those who went before will have no other answer than Desert Orchid. Ratings are cold, calculated and without sentiment. When an old horse, flat or jumping, is having to lump ten pounds more than his present-day ability suggests, the handicapper will point to a performance or performances from seasons past and claim his rating justified. In many instances handicappers are cold-hearted bastards. Ask any number of trainers.
Incidentally there was a chaser in Arkle’s time, indeed in the same yard, who was rated within 2 pounds of the great horse without ever even running in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. When the conversation turns to the great chasers do not omit to mention Flyingbolt, a horse robbed by illness of achieving the same great heights of his more illustrious stable-mate.
Kauto Star finished his career with a rating of 191, the same as Mill House, but a point inferior to Sprinter Sacre. Denman’s rating was 183, a point ahead of Best Mate but four points below Desert Orchid, even though Denman’s two Hennessey wins are considered two of the best performances of all-time.
As Ruby Walsh commented: ratings are nothing but opinion. Yet the likes of Kauto Star, Sprinter Sacre and Best Mate were never tried in the top handicaps. Their limitations were never challenged. Arkle won handicaps giving away upwards of two stones and more. As did Flyingbolt.
If it were not for the opportunity it would spawn for trainers and owners to manipulate the handicapper’s hand, I would suggest ratings, if they must exist, should be analysed not after every race but every third or fourth race, so that horses are not judged for seasons on end by one performance or the sheer bad luck to run second to a subsequent Group I or Gold Cup winner. I dare say all the top trainers can give instances of the careers of promising horses being ruined by inflated handicap ratings judged on their first or second runs.
To my mind the handicapper (and ratings) can be as cruel on a horse as a whip-happy jockey.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.