01/20/2006 12:00AM

Mechanical rankings miss the mark

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NEW YORK - When the Eclipse Award envelopes are opened in Beverly Hills Monday night, Afleet Alex will be named America's champion 3-year-old, Saint Liam will be honored as the nation's best older horse, and one of them (probably Saint Liam) will be named the Horse of the Year. Yet according to the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities, these two dominant American racehorses of 2005 were no better than the fifth- and ninth-best horses in the Northern Hemisphere, and neither was even among the top three internationally in his own division.

The IFHA's World Thoroughbred Rankings, determined at a meeting in Hong Kong last month and released last week, are the successor to what began in the late 1970's as the European Pattern Committee's International Classifications. Initially limited to an assessment of British, Irish, and French racing only, they now purport to assess all racing north of the equator and are recognized as official end-of-season rankings by most international governing bodies.

In this year's exercise, Hurricane Run was ranked on top with a rating of 130, two pounds better than Ghostzapper. Next came Azamour and Westerner at 126 each, with Saint Liam in a four-way tie for fifth at 125 along with Motivator, Shamardal, and Shirocco. Afleet Alex followed in a five-way tie for ninth place, rated at 124 alongside Bago, Deep Impact, Leroidesanimaux, and Starcraft. The top 20 was completed by seven horses ranked equally in 14th place at 123, with Roses in May the lone American runner in a group that also included Alkaased, Azamour, David Junior, Dubawi, Oratorio, and Silent Witness.

So America's top two runners did no better than round out their divisional superfectas, with Afleet Alex behind Hurricane Run, Motivator, and Shamardal among the 3-year-olds and Saint Liam in arrears of Ghostzapper, Azamour, and Westerner in the elder division. In all, only five Americans - Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, Afleet Alex, Leroidesanimaux, and Roses in May - made the hemisphere's top 20.

The international rankings bring to mind the old adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. In attempting to bring horses of all ages, distances, surfaces, and nationalities under one banner, the IHFA rankings smooth things out until they are somewhere between meaningless and misleading. One major flaw is that the rankings are not a blended assessment of a horse's overall campaign but are based on single performances, which is how Ghostzapper became the top American off his one-race campaign and Westerner became the second-best older horse solely for running second to Hurricane Run in the Arc de Triomphe.

The rankings also reflect two strong biases, one clearly toward European grass racing in general and another toward classic races of all nationalities regardless of their quality. How else to explain how Giacomo is rated at 120 and Closing Argument 119 for their improbable one-two finish in a slow and chaotic Kentucky Derby while accomplishing nothing else during the year?

Any system that rates Giacomo superior to Commentator (119), whose Whitney victory over Saint Liam was 5 to 10 lengths a better race than the Derby, has very little credibility. Even so, the rankings are used to determine some year-end honors. The British Horseracing Board's awards are determined solely by the IFHA ratings, with the highest-ranked horses who trained or raced in Britain named the automatic winners of their divisions.

Fortunately no one has proposed that they be used the same way here, but there remain afoot various schemes to determine America's champions by some similarly mechanical means. Every proposal for a better-organized system of major American races, from the Thoroughbred Championship Tour to the Breeders' Cup's initiative to have a similar series in place in 2007, has included a proposal to have some kind of performance-based point system decide the sport's divisional championships. Others believe that every winner of a Breeders' Cup race should simply be named the champion of that division. The Breeders' Cup itself insists on calling its race winners "Breeders' Cup champions," an ongoing misuse of a word that has the specific and different meaning of a horse who is voted a year-end title for his body of work.

It seems to annoy some racing people that other sports decide their champions through the results of games and playoffs with no extenuating circumstances considered, while racing allows an unruly mob of over 300 voters to pick the Eclipse Awards. An alternate view is that racing has got it right, that horses should be allowed and forgiven the occasional bad day, and that quality is measured over an entire season rather than in a single race.