01/15/2010 1:00AM

WTR leaves room for debate


NEW YORK - The release of the 2009 World Thoroughbred Rankings on Tuesday came saddled with the usual dose of controversy. No one in his right mind could deny Sea the Stars his world championship rating, although his trainer, John Oxx, questioned whether 136 is "a true reflection" of his ability. That rating was the highest since Peintre Celebre was awarded a 137 in 1997, although most observers, this one included, would rate Sea the Stars a superior horse.

A tempest in a teapot was created by British racing journalist Mark Popham who, writing in the Blood-Horse, announced that the WTR would be changed to reflect the weight allowances due fillies and mares. He claimed that Zenyatta's 128 would become a 131, while Rachel Alexandra's 127 would become a 130. In fact, Popham had misinterpreted WTR committee chairman Garry O'Gorman's explanation of what the WTR represents.

First, the WTR is a measure of the best performance of a horse during the year, not an estimation of a horse's overall performance. Moreover, sex and age allowances are not taken into consideration. The WTR is a raw rating reflective of what might happen if horses met in a race at equal weights. To begin adding and subtracting age and weight allowances would open an impossible-to-disentangle can of worms because the WTR is given for a single race and because such allowances change as the year progresses. The ratings remained unchanged, including Goldikova's 130, making her the highest-rated older Thoroughbred in the world, while Rip Van Winkle (129) and Fame and Glory (128) remain in third and foruth overall.

As points of reference, the Racing Post rates Sea the Stars at 138, with Goldikova 131, Rachel Alexandra 129, and Zenyatta 128. Timeform has Sea the Stars 140, Goldikova 132, Zenyatta 131, and Rachel Alexandra 129. Rachel's Best Beyer Speed Figure is 116, Zenyatta's is 112.

As 2009 progressed, there was a growing consensus that Sea the Stars was perhaps the best Thoroughbred of the last 50 years. He certainly did nothing to disprove that idea in any of his races, manuvering up and down the distance ladder while traveling from country to country with aplomb. His rider, Michael Kinane, said that Sea the Stars never had to exert himself more than 75 percent of his capability to win any of his races. But WTR handicappers from all of the world's major racing nations determine the WTR by performance, not potential. So even if in our hearts we know that Sea the Stars was the best in the last 50 years, he still rates below not only Peintre Celebre, whose Arc victory remains the single most impressive in the last half-century, but seven other top-rated horses since these ratings began in 1977.

Until 2004, the WTR was known as the International Classification. And until 1994, it was restricted to horses trained in Europe. Six of the eight who were rated higher than Sea the Stars ran prior to 1986, a date that O'Gorman cites as a turning point in the concepts behind the ratings.

He readily admits that Alleged in both 1977 and 1978, Three Troikas in 1979, Shergar in 1981, El Gran Senor in 1984, and Dancing Brave in 1986 (see accompanying chart below) would not have been rated as highly under the criteria employed since 1986. The Europeans' rude awakening may have come when Dancing Brave was trounced in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Turf, a race most of them thought would be a lead-pipe cinch for him.

Besides Peintre Celebre, only Generous has scored higher than Sea the Stars since 1986. His 137 in 1991 came for a seven-length victory in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. But Generous wasn't nearly as versatile or consistent as Sea the Stars, finishing fourth in the one-mile 2000 Guineas and eighth in the Arc, two races that Sea the Stars won.

It is a pity that we will never know where the great Americans of the late 1970s, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, would have been rated. One has the feeling, however, that both of them at their best were a bit better than Cigar, whose highest rating was 135.

An omission of sorts from the 2009 WTR was rectified when the committee explained the absence of a turf rating for either Gio Ponti or Twice Over. Gio Ponti was pegged at 125, and Twice Over at 123 for their second- and third-place finishes in the Breeders' Cup Classic. But with Gio Ponti having won four Grade 1 races on turf, and Twice Over the winner of the Group 1 Champion Stakes, why did they not receive turf ratings? The answer was that they did, but that the WTR only publishes the highest rating received by a horse, unless he is the highweight in another division.

Thus, Summer Bird at 123 is the highweight 3-year-old colt in the Intermediate division (1 1/8 miles to 1 1/4 miles) on dirt. He also is the highweight 3-year-old at 121 in the long-distance division on dirt. Gio Ponti did earn an unpublished 123 for his best turf effort in the Arlington Million, while Twice Over got a 121 for his Champion Stakes triumph, but neither was good enough for a division title.

One glaring WTR error is the continued restriction of its 2-year-old list to horses trained in Europe. No one can argue that St Nicholas Abbey was the best 2-year-old in the world, his masterful 3 3/4-length victory in the Racing Post Trophy was head and shoulders above anything else. But the continued omission of American 2-year-olds is no longer justified.

Twelve European or ex-European 2-year-olds ran in one or another of the Breeders' Cup juvenile races. Seven of those received WTR ratings. Moreover, the Wesley Ward-trained Jealous Again, who is the second highweight juvenile filly in Europe at 115, and Strike the Tiger both won stakes races at Royal Ascot. All of that is more than enough evidence for the world's leading handicappers to include Americans on the 2-year-old list, especially when there are fewer international formlines enabling them to include Japanese and South African horses on the 3-year-old and older horse lists.