01/16/2004 12:00AM

Rankings qualify as international incident

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NEW YORK - The selection this week of Hawk Wing as the world's highest-rated horse of 2003 by the International Classification Committee brings into question the competence of that once-august body as well as raising doubts concerning the criteria it uses in determining international championships.

Even an understanding of those criteria, namely, that only a horse's best annual performance is used in determining its rating, has left most international observers scratching their heads over the improbable honor bestowed upon Hawk Wing, whose 11-length victory in the one-mile Group 1 Lockinge Stakes at Newbury on May 17 will leave future racing historians with the misinformed opinion that this Woodman 4-year-old was the best horse in the world in 2003.

That Hawk Wing was impressive in his first start of the year is undoubted. That his performance deserved a rating of 133 pounds, one pound better than Dalakhani, two pounds better than Alamshar, and six pounds better than Falbrav, beggars description.

In fact, Ireland's committee representative, Gary O'Gorman, had originally awarded Hawk Wing a rating of 136 for the Lockinge, while the committee handicappers as a group gave him a provisional grade of 138, a number that would have made him the highest-rated horse since Dancing Brave garnered a 141 in 1986.

The committee knocked him down a few points after taking into account subsequent events, but in the eyes of many, even those of some members of the committee, he was not knocked down far enough.

The case to rate Hawk Wing as low as 126 is a strong one. The Lockinge runner-up, Where or When, was rated just 115. If one allows one pound per length per mile, Hawk Wing is thus deserving of 126. Olden Times, eight lengths farther back in third in the Lockinge, was rated at 117, but that was for his win in the Group 3 Earl of Sefton Stakes in April. He was clearly running well below that form in the Lockinge.

The six horses Hawk Wing beat in the Lockinge would win just two of their remaining 21 races in 2003, with Where or When, Olden Times, and fourth-place Domedriver failing to win from that point. How then, does one account for Hawk Wing's championship rating?

The obvious answer is simple miscalculation on the committee's part. British and Irish horses have, through the years, generally been rated higher than many of their French counterparts, most notably when Generous was rated a pound higher than Suave Dancer in 1991 in spite of the thumping Suave Dancer gave him in a definitive Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Whatever the thinking behind Hawk Wing's 2003 rating, the process used was the exact opposite of what occurred a year earlier, when Keltos, trained in France by Carlos Laffon-Parias, romped home in the Lockinge by 3 1/2 lengths over Noverre with Olden Times third. By dint of that performance, Keltos maintained a higher rating than Rock of Gibraltar with the British Horseracing Board's official handicapper throughout Rock of Gibraltar's five Group 1 victories at a mile.

As the International Classifications frequently mirror the ratings of national handicappers, one might have expected Keltos to be declared champion miler. But when the Committee met, Rock of Gibraltar received a rating of 128, while Keltos was pegged at 126.

Interestingly, the beneficiary of the committee's decisions in both cases was Mrs. John Magnier of Coolmore Stud, the owner of Hawk Wing and co-owner of Rock of Gibraltar.

Also benefiting Coolmore this year was the unconscionable rating of 119 awarded L'Ancresse. Like Hawk Wing, she is co-owned by Magnier and trained by Aidan O'Brien. The winner of a single listed race in nine starts, she achieved that high figure by finishing second to Islington in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. It made her the highweight 3-year-old filly on the International Classification, and means that the committee considers her second-place finish in the Filly and Mare Turf to be two pounds superior to Six Perfections' victories over older colts in both the Breeders' Cup Mile and the Prix Jacques le Marois.

L'affaire L'Ancresse is unpalatable. It reveals a lack of judgment on the part of all the committee members, be they from Europe, North America or Asia.

If the International Classification ratings were determined as are weights in an American handicap, with all races taken into account, L'Ancresse would have rated 10 pounds below Six Perfections, as well as Russian Rhythm, Nebraska Tornado, and Bird Town, all of whom were also rated at 117. And Hawk Wing, who finished a distant seventh in his only other 2003 appearance, the Queen Anne Stakes, would have been dropped down to something like a well-deserved 122 or 123.

It is time for an overhaul. Year-end ratings are too important in today's international racing and breeding environment to be left to the vagaries of the International Classification Committee as it is presently constituted. Most committee members see too little racing outside of their home countries and tend to bring a national bias to the table. This is a call to racing's major national ruling bodies to redefine the International Classifications so that in future we might avoid the fiascos caused this year by the unjustifiable ratings awarded to both Hawk Wing and L'Ancresse.