01/17/2003 1:00AM

International Classifications pose world-class puzzle


NEW YORK - That 2002 was a subpar year in the Thoroughbred world was clear, as evidenced by the International Classification Committee.

Rock of Gibraltar's highweight rating of 128 was the lowest in the 25-year history of the Classification, while Marienbard's rating of 127 was the second-lowest accorded the leading older horse. There can be little argument with either the horses who sit atop their divisions or the ratings they have been awarded, but if the overall quality of the horses was disappointing, how do we evaluate the skewered ratings granted to horses further down the list?

Any rating system is open to criticism, especially one that attempts to encompass virtually the entire world. But the International Classification system opens itself to criticism with some of its decisions, especially those made in attempting to compare the apples-and-pears worlds of horses from different countries in the absence of comparable form lines.

Keeping in mind that the International Classification rating is based on each horse's best performance of the year, some might argue that Left Bank has been given an unjustly low rating of 122, three pounds below that of North American highweights Azeri and Volponi.

On the face of it, that argument would appear to be valid in that Left Bank defeated Street Cry, the Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster Handicap winner, by 1 1/4 lengths in the Whitney, the race upon which his 122 rating is based. Left Bank, however, was getting five pounds from Street Cry that day. Given Street Cry's outstanding performance in Dubai, an effort that earned him his 124 mark, a 122 for Left Bank appears to be in order.

War Emblem's 124 mark is more problematic. It looks as though the Committee has overrated his victory in the Kentucky Derby. In Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift, War Emblem was beating a weak group of 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs, and he only duplicated that effort in the Preakness and the Haskell. It is difficult to see how War Emblem rates just two pounds below High Chaparral, winner of the Epsom and Irish Derbies as well as the Breeders' Cup Turf.

In the world of handicapping, one sometimes gets the feeling that some races have a preordained number to which the winner must always run, regardless of his actual performance. Is the the Kentucky Derby one of these?

Greater problems arise further down the lists. Look at Khalkevi, the Grand Prix de Paris winner who was rated 114 for that Group 1 victory against 3-year-olds at 1 1/4 miles.

Without arguing against the committee's estimation of Khalkevi per se, a glaring error appears when Khalkevi's mark is compared with that of some horses from other countries. Can it be that Easyfromthegitgo, who earned a 116 for his second-place finish in the Indiana Derby, is two pounds better than Khalkevi? That would be a hard pill to swallow, just as difficult as the two-pound advantage Allamerican Bertie was given over Khalkevi for a second-place finish behind Farda Amiga in a slowly run Alabama Stakes.

One of the problems the committee has is that its European members see too few races in America, while its American members, Frank Gabriel of Arlington and Mike Lakow of the New York Racing Association, experience far too little European racing. If the International Classification is to become the gauge for genuine world championships, its committee should set up an exchange system whereby European and American members could spend significant time at each other's racetracks.

Furthermore, it is no secret that the International Classification has a pronounced British bias. True, the Classification is a British invention, but the bias in favor of British-trained horses, especially to the exclusion of horses trained in France, is glaring.

Twenty-four percent of the horses named to the 3-year-old Classification were trained in Britain, as opposed to 14 percent in France. Among older horses the rates are 19 percent Britain, 5 percent France. In the juvenile division, the numbers are even more disparaging: 52 percent from Britain, just 11 percent from France.

A notable exclusion from this year's 2-year-old classification was Loving Kindness, a filly trained in France by Pascal Bary. The winner of the Group 3 Prix de Cabourg against colts, she went on to finish third, again against colts, in the Group 1 Prix Morny, a race won by Elusive City, who received a 119 rating for his third-place finish in the Middle Park Stakes.

Loving Kindness deserves to be included in the juvenile Classification, which had a cutoff point of 110. But, being trained in France, she was victimized by a pro-British bias that seems to extend beyond just the International Classification Committee.

Last week the European Pattern Race Committee met in Stockholm to regrade Europe's group and listed races, and their findings reflect a pronounced British bias.

While 19 British stakes races received upgrades, there was not a single French race that was accorded the honor. This flies in the face of reality, especially when one of the British races upgraded, the Scottish Classic, was boosted to Group 2 status.

This is unconscionable. The last five winners of this "classic" are Winter Romance, Prolix, Endless Hall, Carnival Dancer, and Imperial Dancer. Except for Endless Hall, a Group 1 winner in Italy and Singapore, they are all Group 3 types. In fact, the Scottish Classic is one of Europe's low-end Group 3 races. It will now be masquerading in a Group 2 disguise.

The French can only shrug their shoulders at such goings-on, leaving the rest of us to scratch our heads in wonderment.