Rating The Races: Is it harder than ever to be ‘top-class’?

Cracksman is one of only two horses to receive a Longines rating of 130 or more since 2012.
Cracksman is one of only two horses to receive a Longines rating of 130 or more since 2012.

Joe Tuffin takes a look at the complicated world of ratings, and gives his views on the figures behind some notable names…

What are ratings?

Official ratings are a way of determining a horse's ability in a comparative but fair way to other horses. At Group level, they don’t change anything in terms of the race, though in handicaps they set the weights; with the highest rated horse carrying top weight and the lowest rated carrying less weight – which in theory allows for the fairest race possible.

A horse's rating is decided by handicappers, who decide ratings with the aim of building a scenario in which each horse would finish in a line as they are all equally matched. It’s a system that works well, with handicaps making up around half of the British racing calendar. 

What’s the problem with ratings? 

It feels as if ratings spend most of their time being scrutinised; be that by connections of a horse who feel that a mark is too high, or by fans of the sport who believe a certain horse should be ranked higher or lower than they are.

Focusing on the latter, it is possible to see where ratings objectively fail, as there is always going to be an air of opinion involved.

This is proven none more so than by different institutions providing different ratings for the same horses, with the BHA, Timeform and the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorties (IFHA) Rankings (Longines World’s Best Racehorse) each providing different figures - as the people crunching the numbers see the race differently. Are any of them wrong? Not necessarily. Does it make things a bit confusing sometimes? Yes.

Taking a look at some notable Longines ratings: 

New Approach, Longines Rating: 130 

New Approach was the first British or Irish-trained horse to receive a rating of 130 in the Longines rankings, following a season where he won the Derby in controversial circumstances (having been left in the race as a mistake, with the Irish equivalent his intended target), as well as the English and the Irish Champion Stakes.

His rating of 130 by the IFHA did attract some controversy - seeing as it put him as the joint-best horse in the world alongside the American-trained Curlin - and he had also lost half of the races he competed in, including both the Irish and English 2000 Guineas and the Juddmonte Stakes by three-and-a-quarter lengths to Duke Of Marmalade, who he beat in the rankings. There’s no denying the quality of New Approach and the five Group 1 wins he mustered are enough evidence of that, but does he weigh up to the likes of Cracksman and Golden Horn, and were his performances worthy of the much sought after 130 rating (which indicates a top-class racehorse)?

Sea The Stars, Rating: 136

Sea The Stars was a truly remarkable racehorse, and his three-year-old season is debatably the finest we have ever seen, even if a certain Frankel topped his mammoth rating. He started off at Newmarket and won the 2000 Guineas, before heading to Epsom for the Derby, followed by the Eclipse, the Juddmonte, the Irish Champion Stakes, and then just to show off - the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Amassing six Group 1s over distances varying from a mile to a mile and a half is no mean feat, but the opponents he was beating is what truly set him apart. He dispatched of Rip Van Winkle - a Group 1 winner with a rating of 129 in 2009 - on three occasions, in the 2000 Guineas, the Derby, and the Eclipse by a combined five-and-a-half-lengths, as well as the 128 rated Irish Derby winner Fame And Glory three times by a combined eight-and-three-quarter lengths. Sea The Stars’ ability was there for all to see, and the combination of the manner of his wins with the prestige and glory of the races he was doing them in makes him more than worthy of his 136 rating.

Harbinger, Rating: 135

Harbinger ran to a rating of 135 in his sole Group 1 success, in the 2010 renewal of the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes. It was a small field, as only six went to post, but it was a classy one, featuring a newly crowned Derby winner in Workforce (who was an odds-on favourite), a newly crowned Irish Derby winner in Cape Blanco, a Hong Kong Vase winner in Daryakana and a Group 1 winner in Youmzain.

So what made it so good? It was an 11-length demolition job, in which he smashed the course record by over two seconds and made this field of talented horses look extremely ordinary. It isn’t often that you see such a facile success in a Group 1, never mind one which featured two classics winners, but such was the high level of performance that it looked like a canter. Maybe he wasn’t as worthy of the lofty rating in comparison to the likes of Sea The Stars and Frankel when it comes to consistent high-rating performances, but it’s easy to say that and a lot harder to prove. He was installed as an evens favourite for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe that year as a consequence, but was retired due to injury.

Frankel, Rating: 140

This one surely needs no introduction. Frankel, the highest rated horse of all time, who went around Britain collecting as many Group 1 contests over a mile that he could. In 14 runs, he recorded 14 wins, with 11 Group 1 successes, and a combined career winning distance of 76 lengths.

He truly was a remarkable racehorse, but was his rating just? It’s hard to argue, as he disposed of 130 rated Excelebration on five occasions and beat him by a combined 26-and-a-quarter lengths, and similarly swept aside the likes of Cirrus Des Aigles (131), Nathaniel (128), Canford Cliffs (127) and Farhh (124) with relative ease.

Although it’s possible to pick holes in some of his early three-year-old form if you’re to be excruciatingly meticulous - of the 12 horses he beat in that famous 2000 Guineas romp, only one tasted Group 1 glory out of 129 races ran post Guineas between them - there is no denying the depth of form and the fact he was only ever given one true scare in his career (in the St James’s Palace Stakes when Zoffany was closing at a rate of knots and got to within three-quarters-of-a-length), it would be fair to suggest his rating is true and fair.

Excelebration, Rating: 130

Excelebration was a fantastic horse who had the inconvenience of being born in the same era as the greatest horse of all time (on ratings). A classy miler who bagged three Group 1 wins in a glittering globe-trotting career, he faced Frankel on five occasions and subsequently lost all five, though second on all but one of those outings and gained a rating of 130 for those efforts. Of those that he overcame, it was the Juddmonte-owned Cityscape that achieved the best rating (125) after a globe-trotting career that saw him run in eight different countries but fall short at Group 1 level. 

Golden Horn, Rating: 130

The first of two from the post Frankel era to receive a rating of 130 from the IFHA, Golden Horn was a Derby, Eclipse, Irish Champion Stakes and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner who made 2015 his own as he scooped some of the premiere middle distance races in his three-year-old season. His only two defeats came to 50/1 chance Arabian Queen in the Juddmonte International Stakes and to Found in the Breeders Cup Turf, which was the final race of his career. He bowed out with £4,438,651 in prize money and beat some of the era’s greats such as Cirrus des Aigles (121), Highland Reel (121),  New Bay (122), Jack Hobbs (123), and Arc hat-trick seeker Treve (126), cementing himself as one of the finest horses in the world.

Cracksman, Rating: 130

A son of Frankel, Cracksman was a Group 1 winner at three when beating Poet’s Word (119) and Highland Reel (123) in a seven length romp in the Champion Stakes. He won two Group 2 races that year and was beaten by Capri (120) in the Irish Derby as well as Wings Of Eagles (119) in the Epsom Derby.

It was a truly mighty performance at Ascot that day and it made for an exciting winter as we looked forward to his four-year-old season, which saw him defend his Champion Stakes crown emphatically by defeating Crystal Ocean (125) by six lengths, as well as adding a Prix Ganay and a Coronation Cup to his CV. That mile and a half event stretched him somewhat as he just got home to beat 33/1 Salouen and 20/1 German runner Windstoss. He suffered one loss in the Price of Wales’s Stakes to Poet’s Word when a long odds-on favourite, and maintained his 130 rating at the end of the year.

What does it all mean?

So where does this leave us - are these the best horses of the past 16 years in definitive order? Well, not exactly.

Excelebration might be the horse to show that ratings may always have an air of subjectivism about them, for all the scrutinous, pernickety research the ratings people carry out. It is more than appropriate and perfectly just to argue that many milers have achieved more than Excelebration did in recent years, and achieved is the key word here.

For example, Ribchester, rated 124 in the 2017 Longines Rankings, won more Group 1 races, including against a 2000 Guineas winner, and notably beat the course record in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot - a race which Frankel and Excelebration both competed in, but Frankel won by 11 lengths in what Timeform consider the finest performance in racing history. Ribchester’s time was a huge 1.25 seconds faster than Frankel, and 3.17 seconds better than Excelebration. Would Ribchester beat Frankel just because he had a quicker time? No, of course not, the way a race is run and the way the ground is can hugely determine the time - and Ribchester's race had two that shot off like rockets - but it certainly shouldn’t be ignored.

Additionally, the mean average ratings of those who Ribchester and Excelebration beat in those two Queen Anne’s show a stark similarity. Excelebration beat nine rivals home who between them have a mean average rating of 113.4. Ribchester beat 15 opponents home (And actually won it), who had a mean average rating of 111.8 - if you take out the 88 rated 200/1 outsider Dutch Uncle (Who must have taken a wrong turn when arriving at Royal Ascot that day) out of the equation, it reads 113.5. With all this considered, it becomes quite apparent that questions can be asked over not only Ribchester being rated inferior to Excelebration, but being rated a whole 6 lb inferior, and not even doing enough to feature on our graphic. Of course, you could also use another example where, factually, Excelebration performed better than Ribchester, but a 6 lb swing between them? That’s tricky to justify.

So was Excelebration’s true rating somewhat affected by the fact he kept finishing behind a horse rated 140 at his peak? Is losing to Frankel back at the start of the decade worthy of more recognition than beating Group 1 winners in this current era, and did the freak that is Frankel create a sort of Frankel paradox, in which the level of his greatness affected the ratings in racing as a whole?

Or, are horses from this era just simply not as good as the previous one? The 2019 season treated us to some fantastic clashes, with Crystal Ocean, Waldgeist and Enable leading the way in terms of ratings, all finishing the year with a rating of 129. They competed in, and won, some of Europe's finest races yet never achieved enough to get a rating of 130, as there could be questions over the lack of depth of some of the races, certainly the King George, though we weren’t saying that at the time.

But would a prime Harbinger comfortably beat them at their prime as his rating would suggest? I wouldn’t want to price that up. It’s worth noting that Enable especially has had a career of unprecedented success, amassing £10,692,563 in prize money over 11 Group 1 wins in four different countries. Those races include the premiere turf mile-and-a-half races in the UK with the King George (three times), France with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (twice) and the USA with the Breeders’ Cup. She also has two classics to boot and a few other Group 1s which, as I’m glossing over them, show the levels of success she has reached in her career.

Though unbeaten for 898 days, having her trainer refer to her as the best horse over a mile and a half he has and will ever train, and being a champion all over the world; she has never been given a rating of 130 – meaning she is considered worse than Harbinger, Cracksman and Golden Horn - horses that ran in the same/similar races to her. She does of course get a 3 lb sex allowance which aids her in these races, but she’s won more Group 1 races than all of those aforementioned combined (8 v 10), secured some £2,500,000 more in prize money, and boasts a better career strike-rate (82.34% compared to Golden Horn at 77.77%, Cracksman at 72.72% and then Harbinger, the highest rated of them all on a measly 66.66%).

But if she had won every single one of her races by just a length more, would that be enough for her to be rated 130? For an outsider of the sport looking in, it must seem barmy that ratings are so often discussed when the achievements speak so loudly and are there for all to see.

Is it not akin to a football fan arguing that a certain footballer is better than Lionel Messi because, even though he doesn’t score as many goals and hasn’t done it on the big stage as often, every single goal is a screamer and therefore he’s just better? Is the winning distance of a race and the manner of their wins - which can be and often is subjective and entirely dependent on the horse - seen as more of a deciding factor of a horse's ability than actual, unarguable factual achievements?

Ratings have historically been used as an objective reference point, but by construction have some subjectivity to them through the handicappers’ opinions and analysis, even if there is a set formula to follow. It’s why we argue about them on Twitter all the time, try to make our own ratings, and it’s why this article has come about. But the comparisons are becoming trickier to make as time goes on and our heroes and their performances turn into history.

The debate on who's the best horse ever will whirl on forever until the day racing ceases from existence, but I don’t think for a second that history will look back on the post Frankel era and discuss only Golden Horn and Cracksman as the sport’s flag bearers and finest performers.

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