11/26/2010 3:08PM

Awards judgmental by nature

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Barbara D. Livingston
Goldikova winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile, was ranked only fourth-best in the world at the distance.

As the debate rages over who should be Horse of the Year in America, as well as who might be the best horse in the world, it is important to understand that the two most important polls in the Thoroughbred world operate under completely different rules.

The Eclipse Award voting for American championship honors and the World Thoroughbred Rankings, rating all of the world’s best horses and emblematic of European championship honors, could hardly be more different in the way they go about their business. The Eclipse Awards are determined by a vote of three bodies: the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers Association, and the Daily Racing Form . Short of allowing the general public a vote, this is about asclose as we can get to a democratic system of determining the best Thoroughbreds – in the United States at least.

The World Thoroughbred Rankings (once upon a time known as the International Classifications) are derived in a more elitist manner designed to remove all regional sentiment from the process. A committee of 18 national handicappers from most of the world’s major racing nations – meaning official Jockey Club-appointed handicappers, or, in the case of the United States, handicappers from two of the country’s major racing jurisdictions – convene in December to hash out the ratings of about 250 of the world’s best racehorses. It is their job to assign a handicap weight reflecting each horse’s best performance during the year. Those horses receiving the highest rating in a given country or at a given distance are conferred championship status on a national, continental, or international basis.

A list of the names of the World Thoroughbred Rankings committee members follows, although one or two of them may change between now and the panel’s annual meeting, which will be held this year in Hong Kong towards the end of December.

Nigel Gray (Hong Kong), co-chairman, Garry O’Gorman (Ireland) co-chairman, Mike Wanklin (Singapore), Gerald Sauque (France), Harald Siemen (Germany), Melvin Day (UAE), Roger Smith (South Africa), Dominic-Gardiner-Hill (Great Britain), Phillip Smith (Great Britain), Tom Robbins (USA), Greg Carpenter (Australia), Dean Nowell (New Zealand), Dr. Kazuhito Mutano (Japan), Marco Rinaldi (Italy), Ben Huffman (USA), David Hunter (Australia), Miguel Careri (Argentina), and Steven Lym (Canada).

It was stated that the World Thoroughbred Rankings method is designed to eliminate regional biases, but that is not always the case. As can be seen from the ranking panel’s national affiliations, there is a decided Anglo-American edge to the committee. Moreover, co-chairman Nigel Gray, while representing Hong Kong, is an Englishman by birth and nationality. Scratch anyone involved in any international endeavor, and the chances are pretty good that the scratchee will bleed his national colors.

The most recent interim rankings ratings released on Nov. 7, the day after the Breeders’ Cup, showed just such a bias as British and American-trained horses took the first two spots. Harbinger, the 11-length winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes was high-rated at 135, while the narrow Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Blame, was second at 129.

Two questions arise. Is Harbinger that much better than the rest of the world’s horses? And did Blame deserve such a high rating for beating a Breeders’ Cup Classic field that included just a single winner of a race over the distance and surface?

National bias aside, these are the sorts of questions that have always plagued the World Thoroughbred Rankings, which rated both Goldikova and Zenyatta at a mere 125. Astonishingly, Goldikova was rated as only the fourth-best miler in the world after Makfi, Quality Road, and Canford Cliffs. Can it be that the Thoroughbred word has become so topsy-turvy that 18 of the sharpest minds in the game have come to such an irrational conclusion?

Perhaps the rankings committee will resolve the issue next month, but that is doubtful, as there will have been only three major one-mile races run between Nov. 7 and Dec. 31, Kyoto’s Mile Championship, the Cigar Mile, and the Hong Kong Mile.

And what will the Eclipse Award voters come up with through their collegiate ballot? Will Zenyatta, a mare that did not defeat a single Group or Grade 1 winner in her five victories this year, sweep to a sentimental victory in defiance of her World Thoroughbred Rankings rating? Or will Blame edge in with his unprepossessing 2010 record?

One thing that can be said for the World Thoroughbred Rankings is that they are indicative of worldwide performance, albeit only the best one in the case of each horse. The Eclipse Awards, on the other hand, take in a horse’s yearlong achievement, unless of course the horse raced only one time in America, in which case its foreign performances don’t count.

Both the Eclipse Awards and the World Thoroughbred Rankings have a certain bearing on a future stallion’s stud fee as well as the quality of the book he will cover. Any horse’s true future value, however, will be determined by performance in the breeding barn, just as his value as a racehorse rests upon his overall performance in all of his races.