World Thoroughbred Rankings: Harbinger rated best in world by 6lb

• Makfi and Workforce joint-best of 2010 three-year-olds
• Dream Ahead and Frankel top two-year-old list

Ascot Races
Harbinger carries a grinning Olivier Peslier to a record-breaking success in Ascot's King George last summer. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Glass ceilings, elephants in the room and unspoken suspicions . . . the publication of the World Thoroughbred Rankings became interesting today when a difference of opinion emerged between the heads of handicapping in Britain and Ireland as to the merit of last year's champion racehorse, Harbinger.

On the strength of his 11-length demolition job over Cape Blanco in the King George at Ascot in July, Harbinger, who never raced again after suffering a serious leg injury a fortnight later, earned an official rating of 135, making him the second best horse over a mile and a half since the rankings were internationalised in 2004. Only Sea The Stars is ahead of him.

While the British Horseracing Authority's Phil Smith said that the international panel had "agreed unanimously" over the mark of 135, the issue still seemed to be troubling his Irish counterpart, Garry O'Gorman. "Speaking as the Irish handicapper [rather than as co-chairman of the panel], I wouldn't have had a problem rating that horse 136," he said. "In fact, I would have had no problem getting Harbinger to 137 and breaking that glass ceiling and removing that from the equation. You know, it [Sea The Stars' rating of 136] was the elephant in the room but nobody mentioned it."

O'Gorman was referring to the fact that Harbinger's rating was largely calculated by rating his Ascot win through Cape Blanco, who was assessed as having run up to the same 119 which he had achieved in the Irish Derby, rather than the 126 to which he improved in the Irish Champion Stakes.

"I made the argument at the meeting that I am making now," he said. "If Harbinger hadn't won the race, Cape Blanco would not have been rated 119 [as the winner] in that race – let's be honest about it. I didn't delve into the motivations for that, but I had my suspicions."

Smith, however, saw things differently and denied that there had been any intent to restrict Harbinger's rating from reaching the same level as Sea The Stars'.

"What characterised Harbinger's year in 2010 was that the form of all of his wins seemed to work out," Smith said. "The great thing about Harbinger was that everything seemed to fit nicely. After the Hardwicke, not many of the international handicappers were big fans of Duncan and, having initially put him up to 126, I subsequently dropped the rating to 123, not wanting to appear stupid.

"But what happened to the Hardwicke form? Duncan won a slightly muddling Prix Foy, Barshiba won the Lancashire Oaks, Sans Frontieres was unbeaten for the rest of the season, Redwood was one of the most consistent Group One performers in training. I bottled it, basically.

"Even if he ran to 126, he was going to need to be on his A-game to win the King George, but he produced a staggering performance. How do you rate it? We went through Cape Blanco and you could argue that we could have gone through Youmzain and got an even higher rating for him. As it was, we thought that Youmzain probably ran about 3lb below his best form.

"It is very, very rare that you would use a horse beaten so far as a marker but the form itself had a pretty strong look to it. There was a view among some people after the King George, was it a fluke? In our view, even if Workforce had brought his Derby run to the table that day, he would have been beaten."

Smith added that Harbinger's rating of 135 makes him the best four-year-old to run in Europe since Alleged (140) in 1978.

2.30pm How international are these rankings?

Once again, the final tables have a slightly depressing pro-European and pro-Turf feel, despite the obvious desire to internationalise the process.
Of the 69 horses of three years and upwards rated 120 or more, over half (36) are trained in Britain, Ireland, France or Germany, while all bar 13 achieved their best performances on grass.

Nakayama Festa was allotted a mark of 127 for chasing home Workforce in the Arc de Triomphe, some way better than anything he achieved in Japan, and 6lb ahead of the likes of Buena Vista and Victoire Pisa, both of whom would be hot favourites to beat him if they were to go head to head in their homeland.

Phil Smith suggested to me afterwards that the Japanese handicappers were satisfied that Nakayama Festa had indeed run the race of his life – by some way – in the Arc, but personally I still find it surprising that you have to go down to 121 to find another horse trained in Asia in the rankings.

Buena Vista's rating, of course, is influenced by the fact that she is a filly and was receiving allowances from her rivals in all of her starts, a point taken up by O'Gorman when he defended the ratings of 125 given to both Zenyatta and Goldikova.

"Goldikova beat Paco Boy three times by less than a length, when receiving weight, so, without her win in the Breeders' Cup Mile at the end of the season, it would have been possible for Paco Boy to be ahead of her in the ratings," he said. "There is an interesting philosophical point here. Is the filly, receiving 3lb, the better horse or is the colt the better horse?

"Makybe Diva was rated 124 and So You Think ran to 126 at his best last year, but she would have been receiving 2kg – about 4lb – in weight allowance and would have beaten him. Which is the better horse?

"Two years ago, Zarkava was 2lb behind New Approach and Curlin in the rankings, as we had to take her allowance into account, but for me she was the best horse in the world that year."

Despite saying that the panel were "running out of superlatives for Goldikova and Zenyatta," the ratings of both horses fell from 12 months ago.

"I think it's important to stress that we're not denigrating them, we're simply saying that, in terms of performance level, they never reached the heights of last year," said O'Gorman. "You cannot say that Goldikova reached the same level of form as she did when winning the Marois in 2009 and it was the same with Zenyatta.

"I think it would be a brave man to say they that they were inferior. Goldikova has a prolific win record. She doesn't have to win by six lengths. She was every bit as brilliant when winning her third Breeders' Cup as her first. We're just saying they didn't reach the same heights as last season."

Goldikova's Breeders' Cup victory was rated only the third-best performance over a mile last season, behind efforts by Makfi (129) and Canford Cliffs (128).

The BHA's Dominic Gardiner-Hill commented: "I suspect there will be plenty of people who think Canford Cliffs to be the better horse, but the committee were of the opinion that Makfi's performance at Deauville couldn't be rated less than 128 and Canford Cliffs' win in the Sussex Stakes couldn't be rated higher than 127."

3pm "Ignore Dream Ahead's flop behind Frankel"

As for the two-year-olds, Frankel and Dream Ahead were crowned joint champions on 126, with Hooray (117) the top two-year-old filly.

Matthew Tester, the BHA's chief two-year-old handicapper, said that not enough credit had been given to Dream Ahead for his victory in the Middle Park Stakes and that no attention should be paid to his defeat behind Frankel in the Dewhurst (in which Frankel was also assessed as having run below the level of form he showed when winning the Royal Lodge from Klammer).

"I and the rest of the panel were far from convinced that beating Klammer by 10 lengths was superior to what Dream Ahead achieved when beating Strong Suit and Approve by nine lengths," said Tester. "Dream Ahead was mighty impressive that day. If you were looking at an Aidan O'Brien-trained Galileo colt, you'd have been writing big headlines.

"It isn't possible, even with Roderic O'Connor winning the Criterium de Saint-Cloud afterwards, to get Frankel running better than to 125 [in the Dewhurst]. As for the Royal Lodge, you can make the number what you like and some form organisations seem to have allowed him 34lb for a 10-length beating of Klammer." Tester said he preferred a more conservative 20lb.

"I expect Dream Ahead to be campaigned mostly at sprint distances this season," Tester continued. "I don't believe a mile race is likely to play to his strengths. But it's a very rare three-year-old sprinter who is able to achieve a rating of more than 120. The last one was Oasis Dream."

"Frankel is the one with untapped potential, the one about whom there is the possibility that he is going to be rated 130-plus, but there is also a fragility to him."

Horses to follow for 2011

O'Gorman picked out four fillies – Alanza (one from one in a Listowel maiden for John Oxx), Kissable ("she could be a dark horse for the Classics"), Handassa (another easy winner of her maiden on her only start) and Zaminast ("a half-sister to Famous Name who looks exciting").

Tester singled out Zoowraa, an unbeaten Michael Jarvis-trained filly, and the Queen's Carlton House, but added a caveat. "For me, this isn't the year of dark horses," he said. "This is the year of Frankel."

Best horses of 2010

135 Harbinger

129 Blame

128 Makfi, Quality Road, Workforce

127 Canford Cliffs, Nakayama Festa

126 Cape Blanco, Rip Van Winkle, So You Think

125 Goldikova, Twice Over, Zenyatta

124 Byword, Dick Turpin, Eskendereya, Fame And Glory, Lookin At Lucky, Lope De Vega, Paco Boy

123 Black Caviar, Fly Down

Best European two-year-olds of 2010

126 Dream Ahead, Frankel

120 Pathfork, Wootton Bassett

119 Casamento, Roderic O'Connor

117 Blu Constellation, Seville

116 Hooray

115 Maiguri, Saamidd, Salto, Tin Horse, Zoffany

114 Dunboyne Express, King Torus, Recital

Top-rated horses of recent years

2009 Sea The Stars 136

2008 Curlin and New Approach 130

2007 Manduro 131

2006 Invasor 129

2005 Hurricane Run 130

2004 Ghostzapper 130

2003 Hawk Wing 133

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Comments in chronological order (Total 8 comments)

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  • This symbol indicates that that person is a contributorContributor
  • windbag

    12 January 2011 12:52AM

    Anomalous 1 hit performances are usually less than they seem. How far superior was Harbinger's peak rating, based on 1 run, to his second best rating? Doesn't that seem a bit odd?

  • socialwanderer

    12 January 2011 9:48AM

    I'm getting increasingly furstrated with the racing industry's desperation in crowning a new "star" after only one decent performance. We had the same with Workforce in the Derby, which, as it turns out, was one of the weakest renewals for years. Even his Arc win is tainted by half the field being involved in a wrestling match in behind.

    Surely one performance can't get horses such high ratings. Surely this rating devalues the consistent brilliance of Sea The Stars..?

  • Boeingclipper

    12 January 2011 10:00AM

    As usual, there's a huge political flavour to these ratings, which are more entertaining than enlightening.

    As you suggest, can it really be true that there's only one middle distance horse in the Asian region within a stone of Harbinger? And anyway, as Windbag says, Harbinger never ran to anything like that level of form in any of his other races, so it's probable it was one of those inexplicable fluke performances that you get from time to time. Why couldn't Stoute get the horse to perform like this before? He may be a tiresome individual, but he can train.

    Also, with so many sprinters being bred these days, and some exceptional performers around the world (admittedly not European or American!), it's strange, isn't it, that the distance aptitudes of these supposedly "best" horses seem hardly to have changed in 100 years?

    However, I don't have a problem with the overwhelming majority of top-rated horses being grass horses. Statistically, that's what you'd expect.

  • Janczyk

    12 January 2011 12:47PM

    if anything, the move to try and make it more international and scientific is having the opposite effect: they tell so little of the story that they're getting a reputation for inaccuracy. Last year it was acknowledged that the consistency and the brilliance of Sea the Stars in winning so many good races without completely destroying his fields couldn't be reflected in his figure. And just like Hawk Wing, one astonishing run by Harbinger makes it all a bit more difficult to accept. As Boeingclipper suggests, it's more like a bit of fun, really. At least it's harmless.

  • nijinsky

    12 January 2011 8:04PM

    will be very interesting to watch how So You Think goes in Europe now he is with Aidan O'Brien. Bart Cummings, the legendary octogenarian Aussie trainer was devasted when he was sold, believing he might be the best galloper he had trained in a 60 year career.
    I assume he will be campaigned over 1600metres to 2000, although he has group one form at 1400 to 3200 (he ran second on a bog track in the Melbourne Cup giving weight to proven stayer Americain just three days after cruising in in a Group One over 2000 metres on heavy ground at Flemington.).
    He has loads of upside. The only possible knock on him is to wonder about the overall quality of Australian middle distance and staying form. The industry there is obsessed with breeding sprinter milers, and the bulk of races on race programmes are 1600 metres or less, so you have to wonder about those he beat.
    But there is no doubt he was super impressive. He won the Cox Plate, the wfa group one championship, as a three year old at only his fifth start, which is unheard of here, and then did the double this year pretty comfortably.
    O'Brien got the Group One in Europe they wanted with Haradasun, while Starcraft and Elvstroem were also competitive between 1600 and 2000m there, so no reason why So You Think can't be.
    Now if there was a world championship for sprinters I couldn't go past Black Caviar. She is unbeaten after nine starts, wins on all surfaces from 1000m to 1200, can lead or take a sit and runs quick times too. I don't think connections plan to take her to England _ they reckon that there isn't much value you can put on a filly by winning in Europe and the money is better in Australia anyway _ but they might bring her to Hong Kong. She is very special, although she has had soundness issues.
    If Hay List, a dominant West Australian/Victorian sprinter makes the trip and stays sound look out for him at Ascot in the summer

  • windbag

    13 January 2011 2:22AM

    SYT' s opposition was mediocre. He only met one high quality horse last spring, and she was a miler, having her first start past a mile. But he's better than Starcraft, and much better than Haradasun, so he won't have any problem winning G1s at 8- 10f in Europe. I am not sure if he's really suited to 12f.

  • nijinsky

    13 January 2011 5:19PM

    Assume you mean More Joyous when they clashed in the Cox Plate, not Typhoon Tracey.
    Don't know if they are all mediocre. Not great, but Whobegotyou is not bad around the 1600m mark.
    His record is certainly more imposing that Starcraft's or Haradasun, although from memory the latter did win what I always reckon is one of the hardest races of the year, the Doncaster Handicap.
    Would be a boost for the Aus-NZ industry if he could win at Group One level in Europe...

  • millreef

    13 January 2011 10:17PM

    I actually have no problem with that rating for harbinger. it was a spectacular performance. it would have been nice to see him run again and confirm it - or flop. don't usually like the handicappers cherry picking one performance but that was just so good, I will never forget it. think the other ratings are also pretty accurate. but dream ahead and frankel equal??

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