ARC Debate: Could "Super G1" races level the playing field?

Panel at the 2014 Asian Racing Conference in Hong Kong.

On May 6, the Asian Racing Conference (ARC) heard proposals for a reduction in the number of G1s in world racing; for an introduction of a new range of “Super Group Ones,” differing in title as well as in class from lesser events currently carrying the G1 designation, and for a standardisation of medication rules for all Group and Graded races worldwide. Paul Haigh offers his impression of the debate and its implications.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Executive Director of Racing Bill Nader kicked off with an observation that was unexceptional in the sense that it was a factual statement: “There are 459 Group or Grade One races worldwide. 

“Country by country, the number of G1 races makes no sense,” he added. 

Because this was the Asian Racing Conference, representatives of some of the countries most likely to have been disturbed by this reminder - Peru, for example, with 9 G1s; Brazil with 24, or Argentina with 40 - were not in the auditorium. But Australia, which boasts 71 G1s and is part of the ARC – for racing purposes, if not strictly geographical ones – was represented. And the United States, with a world-leading total of 110 G1s, also had guest speakers present. The ARC claims, correctly, to be the largest racing conference on earth. Its collective thought is not to be taken lightly. 

In case anyone was in any doubt, Nader continued, “We are looking at the Pattern with focus on upgrades and downgrades for global balance… In everything we do there will be groups of people lobbying for their own interests… but good governance for quality control must prevail over individual interest.” 

He then went on to remind of the day’s agenda: “Is there a case for a new category of super races?” And - this from an American, albeit in his present role an ex-pat: “Should races that permit the use of medication be graded?"

Following Nader was CEO of Horse Racing Ireland Brian Kavanagh, who is also chairman of the European Pattern Committee. Trained geographers will have spotted that Ireland is not in fact in Asia either, but the respected Kavanagh was one of many of the conference’s invited speakers. His words chimed with those of his platform predecessor. Kavanagh provided a brief history of the Pattern from its 1965 initiation in Britain, to the joining of France and Ireland in 1970 to its present global reach. He explained that the purpose was for “the organisation of competition to select the best horses in order to improve the quality of the breed” - an ideal on which every Thoroughbred turf club is agreed.

With a fine bit of patriotism, Kavanagh suggested that it was in fact Vintage Crop’s 1993 Melbourne Cup that marked the moment when racing became “truly global." More significantly to the proposition on the table was Kavanagh’s reminder that it was one of the Pattern’s intentions that “There should be more G3s than G2s, more G2s than G1s, and that the number of G3s should exceed the total number of G2s and G1s combined. 

“The purpose,” he continued, “was to establish strict quality control over European racing and since then the European committee has tightened its rules, with more downgrades than upgrades in recent years."

He went on to emphasise the importance of Black Type as an indication of true quality and asked the question “Are there too many black type races in the world?” before concluding that the answer, when related to foal production, was probably “No." However, he continued to say that the purpose of seeking change at the top end of racing was “regulatory rather than concerned with the seeking of popularity,” pointing to anomalies that already exist within the Pattern, including the lack of G1 sprints in Britain, Ireland, and France. (Might this have something to do with the relatively low quality in global terms of sprinters from these jurisdictions?) 

Kavanagh went on to say that the present international ratings, with horses in the top 12 coming from four different continents, clearly indicated that “the best horse in the world can come from any part of the world” and that the Pattern as it now exists “would be completely unrecognisable to the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Carnarvon” (who worked on the original idea in 1965 and 1967). 

Then came his peroration, and it took no great feat of imagination to hear the sound of feathers ruffling. 

“There are too many races in the world now carrying G1 ratings which are not justified,” he said. “Longines is promoting the sport to a new world audience and this needs to be corrected. Our sport is now global and needs to be promoted globally." 

Then, he came to the part that may have caused shivers down a few American spines, or perhaps smiles of mild disapproval at what many Americans might think of as the unrealistic nature of what was being proposed. 

“It is also essential that we should standardise rules on medication for G1 races worldwide," Kavanagh said.

Since medication rules are more or less standardised already elsewhere, this could only be directed at the Americas - and North America in particular. He chose as a comparison the international success of Formula 1 motor racing (inexplicable to those of us who can’t see the entertainment value of the internal combustion engine, but a pertinent example nevertheless). 

“It would be ridiculous to permit F1 rankings where some races were run on different fuels,” he said. “So why should racing do this? We are facing challenges. But with challenges come opportunities."

He sat down to thoughtful applause. There were plenty of other remarks from the seven-man panel, although no direct counterblast to the proposals. 

But, it would be incorrect to suggest that once the presentations had been made there was no attempt to argue. Clearly, certain criteria would have to be put in place, and met, before any redesignation of any of the current 459 could be made. If only one was used - the average rating of the participants in an event, for example - then that would exclude some of the races that are by most other definitions indisputably among the world’s greatest. 

Would the Dubai World Cup make the super standard if only that one criterion was used? Almost certainly not, if the measurement is based on the last 10 years. Would the Kentucky Derby make the cut, even without considering the proposal about standardising medication? What about the Melbourne Cup?

“The Melbourne Cup would not be a Super G1,” Kavanagh confirmed. “But, it is the most iconic race in Australia. This presents a marketing challenge, an emotional challenge, but not a ratings challenge."

There was no argument about the fact that some G1s are quite clearly of higher status than others. Winning one of Britain’s 33, for example, is obviously a desirable achievement simply because of the added stud value conveyed by victory.

Could added stud value be used as the criterion then? Surely too hard to define. What about the simplest method of all then: prize money? No, that doesn’t work either. Winners of the Arc de Triomphe, or the Arima Kinen, or even the Epsom Derby (Ruler of the World is a recent exception) hardly ever go near the Dubai World Cup.

From Australia Kevin Dixon, chairman of Racing Queensland, raised an interesting thought about the suggestion that some G1s need to be downgraded. 

“My big day is having a G1,” he said. “We want more big days. So, we want more G1s, not less."

“In any sport, you need a national league with a Grand Final that kids in the park can aspire to,” Dixon said later. “Downgrading G1s which don’t meet global standards would mean some countries would have no Grand Final." 

What an observer could only think of as the proposers of the motion were not to be shifted though by the difficulties involved in definition. The need to make an attempt to standardise the quality of the G1 designation was essential. 

“The whole idea of G1s is that they should be for elite horses,” Kavanagh said. “It is not desirable that there should be too many weak Black Type opportunities." 

Kavanagh, surprisingly, is not in favour of Super Group Ones, but the whole tenor of what he had to way indicated that he supports downgrading of any Pattern events that fail to meet required standards. 

Nader nailed his colours even more firmly to the mast.

“Super G1s, I’m for it,” Nader said. “In tennis, in golf, in many other sports we certainly know which are the elite events. Racing needs to be able to identify its elite events in the same way. The 459 G1s in the world at the moment are not all equal. We all know that."

So all G1s, which are open at least theoretically to international competition, are at present, at least theoretically, equal. But some are quite obviously more equal than others. What then should be done? The creation of a new tier at the top, call them Super Group Ones or think of a better name as some speakers suggested, is certainly a seductive idea particularly when seen as an attempt to create Grand Slam events in a sport that in many parts of the world, though not perhaps in Asia, is in serious need of rebranding. So, they put the issues up for a vote. 

Straw polls are never scientific and therefore should never be taken too seriously, and we should not forget that this was the Asian Racing Conference, held in Hong Kong (which, for the benefit of non-geographers is in Asia). But there were over 800 delegates at this month’s ARC and a glance round the hall suggested something like a quorum.

Delegates voted by computer, which was in effect a secret ballot, on the question of whether racing needs to designate certain races Super Group Ones.

Most of us hacks had the computers too, but abstained. This one might have voted yes to both proposition. 

The results showed that 59.6 percent of those in attendance were in favour of the Super Group Ones, while 40.4 percent were against.

On the question of whether the award of Black Type should be linked to globally agreed standards of medication (a subject that rather surprisingly got far less airtime than the question of whether a special tier of G1s should be established and whether some G1s should lose their status) the attendees voted 82 percent for - 18 percent against.

Last word, since it is American racing that is under threat from both suggestions, should go to an American. In his post-debate interview, Carl Hamilton explained why he is not in favour of the Super Group Ones.

“I think the Pattern is very important,” Hamilton said. “While we all have our cultural differences it’s the basic foundation of racing in every country. The general public are used to ratings of some kind in every sport so it seems quite natural that we should have them too, but I’m not a fan of the Super G1s...I don’t see a clear delineation there for one race to be a Super G1 when another isn’t. If it’s the top 25, then why not the top 26 or 27? There’s just no obvious point of delineation. We all know what the world’s greatest races are.... I don’t see that creating a new category of Super G1s would make a great deal of difference."

Perhaps wisely, Hamilton made no mention of medication standardisation. But the topics are out there now. The ARC is essentially a talking shop with no power of its own to impose new regulations, but there’s no doubt that the general views of its meetings are influential on those organisations that do, notably the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, which controls the Pattern. There’s no doubt that when the world’s racing administrators convene in October at the post-Arc conference in Paris these topics will be debated again.    

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