Come December, a lengthy debate will take place in Hong Kong among the members of the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings Committee. It will last for days, and by the time it is done, the end of year ratings will be set.
These figures will serve as the final Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings of 2017, which will be published by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) during the Longines World’s Best Racehorse and Longines World’s Best Horse Race ceremony in January.
“The Longines rankings are about the best sustainable performance in a calendar year,” said Phil Smith, who serves as co-chairman of the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings Committee, along with Nigel Gray. “You are asked to be on the committee if you are the senior handicapper in a Part I country, which are all the major racing countries in the world.”
Countries currently represented on the committee include: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and the United States.
Factors to be considered
While the rankings are released monthly from March through November, those interim ratings are meant to be a guide as the year progresses toward the final figures. To determine a rating, handicappers look at a variety of aspects of a race.
“We take as many factors into consideration as we can,” said Smith, who retires next year from his role as head of handicapping for the British Horseracing Authority. “We look at the competition, we look at the pace of the race, we take the ground into consideration because we generally find on soft ground or dirt you can get elongated distancing between the horses, we look at the form of all the horses going into the race, and then the beaten opposition and whether they were in form or if they were out of form, and we look at the distance of the race.
“We will also ask, did the horse win that easily, did the jockey really have to ask him a question or no questions, and did this horse get hampered in the race and therefore wasn’t able to do his stuff.”
Once all of those things are taken into account, it becomes an exercise in mathematics with opposition being a main key to the equation.
“I may say over a mile that such and such horse should be 126 because he’s beaten this horse who we’ve rated at 120 multiple times,” said Smith. “Therefore my interpretation of the victory, where he won by 2½ lengths, but I thought it could have been 3 because the jockey didn’t really ride him out, I would call that six pounds, and he comes out at 126.”
Starting at the top
When it is time to set the final rankings at the end of the year, the first day of debate may only cover 20 horses, Smith explained, because they are the top 20 horses. They take longer to settle, but it is easier if the committee starts at the top and works its way down.
The next day, because those figures are set, they can get through 50 horses since they have a level to start with courtesy of those top runners. As the days go by, they can rate more and more horses. However, being on the committee is not enough to guarantee a vote.
“We have a rule about voting,” said Smith. “There is an opportunity there for any of those countries to put a figure on every time a horse runs in a Pattern race, and there is obviously the opportunity for anyone to say whatever they believe in the debate in Hong Kong. You can only vote if you have put figure on the system or taken part in the debate. They have to be diligent.”
Horses who improve
While the monthly rankings serve as a baseline, there is a lot of major racing in the latter part of the year that can dramatically impact the final rankings.
“We might have a horse we are publishing on 122 over and over again, and then maybe it runs in the international races in Hong Kong in December, and it gets beaten by a horse we thought was not as good,” said Smith. “That horse might leapfrog it right at the end of the year.”
The group most likely to experience a major change in ratings as the year goes on is the 3-year-old crop because, as Smith explains, handicappers are wary of one-off performances.
“The opportunity is there for horses to improve, especially 3-year-olds,” he said. “We are always a little bit cautious with 3-year-olds early in the year because we want to see if they can keep on doing it as they get older and more mature. A lot of them do improve as the year goes on.
“For example, look at Enable. Her performance figures this year, in order, were 102, 109, 122, 122, 126, 123, and finally 128. You can see the progress. It isn’t perhaps as dramatic as that with others, but that would be typical of 3-year-olds because they are still maturing.”
According to Smith, one of the more frustrating things handicappers experience from year to year, especially with progressing horses, is when a runner is clearly talented but gets injured before truly showing it, as they can only be rated for what they have done, not for their potential.
Then there are horses who go off form. Handicappers have found Arrogate in particular to be an interesting riddle this year because, although he has not returned to form since winning the Dubai World Cup sponsored by Emirates Airline, the horse who finished second, Gun Runner, has, and his success helps validate Arrogate’s performance in March.
“Unlike 3-year-olds, we wouldn’t be expecting much higher ratings from Arrogate because he’s a mature horse,” said Smith. “I’ll just be really happy if he produces what he did in Dubai again. I have a few doubts, but that would be great. Something we often say during the debates in Hong Kong is, ‘Ah yes, but he’s only done it once.’ A great thing is to be able to say this horse replicated that performance.”
The ratings are based on races held in a calendar year, not during an individual’s career. Smith pointed out that 2017 has been an odd one because, from the very beginning, Arrogate and Winx have sat one-two, and no one else has gotten close to them. However, it is still possible for a horse to outperform them, and obviously, they could still outperform themselves.
“You know a lot more by the end of the year,” said Smith. “The monthly lists are only interim lists, but the end of year rating is a permanent historical record for the horse.”