TRC Global Horse Rankings: the Winx vs Enable era

Back on top: Winx overtook Enable and returned to world #1 once again after winning her fourth Cox Plate, at the expense of the accomplished European Benbatl, in October 2018. Photo: Sharon Lee Chapman

The TRC Global Horse Rankings – representing a new approach to ranking racehorses – were launched last week. We believe it is what we believe to be a fairer and more accurate system than the others out there, which all use the traditional pounds-per-length-style ratings method of classifying racehorses. Here, in the second of three articles looking back at how our rankings would have looked in previous years in the TRC era, James Willoughby examines the quality-laden years of 2016-18, which were dominated by two super-fillies.

 

We left the history of TRC Global Horse Rankings at the end of 2015 as the mighty American Pharoah wrapped up his historic campaign and earned the first ratings index of 1500+ with his dominating win in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Well, it’s a sure bet he would have stayed at #1 for much of 2016 also, had connections kept him in training. But, inevitably he was retired to stud and left a hole at the top of the rankings. Under our 200-day rule, however, it wasn’t until May 2016 that a new name appeared at #1, a name who was to remain there on-and-off for better than three years:

TRC Horse Ranking of May 22, 2016: Winx moves up a place in the wake of American Pharoah’s departure

To this point, Winx had run in 17 Group races and won 11 of them. She had earned an index of 1418pts after winning the G1 Doncaster Mile by two lengths from Happy Clapper. This was her ninth Group race win in a row, but it turned out we were only seeing the start of what she could do: her winning sequence was never broken.

Winx would go on to spend 134 weeks at #1 which, at the end of her career, gave her 210 weeks in the Top Ten and 216 weeks in the Top 50. All these numbers are the best in rankings history.

Between the rankings above and those of April 9, 2017, less than a year later, Winx went on to win eight more times. The last two of those were among her most imperious wins: the 2017 G1 George Ryder at Rosehill (by seven lengths from Le Romain) and the 2017 G1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes (by five from Hartnell). Hartnell was world #33 for a time, yet Winx earlier beat him by eight lengths in the 2016 G1 Cox Plate at Moonee Valley. Only a brilliant runner could do that.

It was Winx’s win in the Queen Elizabeth referred to above that propelled her to her highest ever rankings index of 1523. This is narrowly the highest index of any horse, making Winx by a small margin our #1 racehorse of the TRC Global Rankings era.

TRC Horse Ranking of April 9, 2017: Winx earns the highest ratings index of the TRC era

But, as we shall see, her standing at the top of the tree depends on exactly how the coefficients that determine TRC Global Rankings are tuned by the data, and in earlier iterations of rankings history she wasn’t at the very top but fractions behind.

With reference to the rankings caption above, it is worth restating what TRC Global Rankings is trying to achieve; this is the ethos of what makes them different (and, we would venture, superior) to other classifications which use only a horse’s best performance to establish its place in the hierarchy.

By contrast, TRC Global Rankings uses every run in a Group or Graded race to rank a horse. What we are looking to capture is the value of a career in the round, taking into account its depth and breadth as well as just its height. Ranked second to Winx above is a horse who himself has strong claims to be regarded as one of the most extraordinary in the remarkable recent history of Thoroughbred racing, the American dirt superstar Arrogate, who raced for Prince Khalid Abdulla’s Juddmonte Farms and was trained by Bob Baffert.

Arrogate won the first four Graded races of his career: the 2016 Travers Stakes at Saratoga (by more than 13 lengths), the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita (by half a length, from California Chrome), the 2017 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream (by nearly five lengths) and the 2017 Dubai World Cup at Meydan (by better than two lengths, from Gun Runner).

Surely no horse has ever achieved as much as that in the same space of time! Arrogate’s highest ranking index of 1490pts ranks #4 all-time with us and is higher than the career-best of six of the ten horses who, unlike him, made it to world #1 (more of that in the next and final part of this series). Amazingly, however, Arrogate was never #1 himself - partly because he lost the last three races of his career (two of them badly) and partly because of the competition he was forced to keep at the top of TRC Global Rankings.

So, what are we implying by those rankings of April 9, 2017? What should be inferred from these indices – Winx with 1523pts and Arrogate with 1489pts? As with all our rankings, this is not just an exercise in playing with numbers. In effect, we are quantifying the rarity value of a horse’s record, assuming this is a proxy for the difficulty of its attainment and therefore a correate for the true, unknown merit that a racehorse possesses.

There is a need to take opportunity into account. It is by no means a knock on Winx, but her outstanding aggregate was a function of greater time in the batter's box than most hitters. Would it be possible to do what she did, had she have been trained in Europe? No, definitely not. There just isn't the same number of races open to her, and, in any case, the level of competition in Europe at middle distances would make things harder for her - no winning on the bridle and turning out fresh again next time, in all probability. So, we have to discount her environment when placing her record in the same, neurtral context needed to truly compare horses around the world.

All this is, of course, just splitting hairs. Winx’s record of 25 Group 1s (not to mention 33 consecutive wins) is unparalleled in the modern era and likely to remain that way for a long time. It is a shame she did not race outside of Australia, but we know from a detailed analysis of her times and sectionals that she was extremely special as an athlete.

Winx might not have met her equal on the track, but she was to encounter another of her sex at the top of TRC Global Rankings who certainly would have had claims to defeat her in a match race, for all that we can estimate about the two. For, while European superstar Enable will never match Winx’s aggregate of success, the record she was about to start compiling, starting in 2017, featured much deeper competition and afforded her far fewer races where she had a huge class edge. She, too, is an all-time great racemare.

Enable’s career in Group races started with the 2017 Oaks at Epsom, which she won by five lengths. Further successes followed in the Irish Oaks at the Curragh (by nearly six lengths), the King George at Ascot (by better than four, from Ulysses), the Yorkshire Oaks at York (by five lengths) and, most notably, her first Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Chantilly (by two and a half lengths, from Cloth Of Stars). This is how the rankings looked after that:

TRC Horse Ranking of October 1, 2017: Enable wins her first Arc and puts the heat on Winx

This is heady stuff. The gap from Enable in second to Arrogate in third is 118pts. Yes, to Arrogate, he of the wide-margin wins in the world’s top races (by this stage, he had suffered two defeats, however). Winx may be #1 and Enable #2 but they are really #1 and #1A – two all-time great horses in a class of their own.

If you wonder how Winx’s rating has slipped from the 1523 cited earlier to 1503 without her suffering defeat, this is our ageing curve at work again. As Winx got older, she kept winning and winning but, through no fault of hers, the quality of the opposition dropped off a little, so we could not be quite as confident in her otherworldy level of talent as before. (This is ranking semantics, but it is worthy of a mention as an explainer.)

In Australia, Winx continued to win and win, but, for the technical reasons just stated, her rating dropped off a bit in 2018. Meanwhile, Enable was kept off the track that year, not reappearing until the G3 September Stakes on the all-weather surface at Kempton Park in which she defeated a G1-quality horse in Crystal Ocean in a manner that made him look like a G3-quality horse.

That race was the perfect set-up for Enable’s bid for a second Arc. And she duly delivered, albeit narrowly, holding on by a short-neck from the upstart Sea Of Class, who some believed should have won. Still, two Arc wins and a record of seven wins from seven Group races was enough to see Enable topple Winx for the first time in the post-2018 Arc figures:

TRC Horse Ranking of October 7, 2018: Enable finally hits the front after her second Arc win

We have included a Top 12 in this caption, rather than just a Top Ten because it is illustrative to see that Arc runner-up Sea Of Class gained 98pts to Enable’s 62pts. This highlights another important point about TRC Global Rankings: a competitor’s change in points is relative to their own record previously and not relative to other runners in the race. In other words, the greater the statistical shock caused by a performance, the greater the change in ranking points – up or down.

But Enable did not last long at the top. Later the same month, Winx won again. And, crucially for us, her G1 Ladbrokes Cox Plate victory provided a link to European form; this is the kind of statistical connection that makes our algorithm a lot more confident about a horse’s true standing globally. Winx’s victim, by an easy two lengths, was Godolphin’s then world #29 Benbatl (later as high as #8), the winner of three Group 1s and six Group races in all, at that point in time:

TRC Horse Ranking of October 28, 2018: Not so fast, my friend! Winx reclaims her throne in the Cox Plate

But Enable was to have her chance for a swift return. Liberated by her light campaign, trainer John Gosden shipped her to California for the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita. In a thrilling duel of the very highest standard, she defeated Aidan O’Brien’s Magical by under a length, the pair drawing a mile clear in the stretch. Enable was top again just one week later!

TRC Horse Ranking of November 4, 2018: Right back at you, Winx! A Breeders’ Cup win restores Enable’s #1 spot

This performance precipitated the highest TRC ranking index of Enable’s career to date, 1521. This is just 2pts below Winx’s career-best effort, but nothing should be read into this fine margin whose magnitude is insignificant. Regardless, it is some tribute to the scope of Enable’s win in California that both she and Magical are still in the Top Ten in this week’s rankings, some 21 months later:

And that was it for 2018, for our money the most quality-filled and top-class year of racing during the TRC era. It was a tale of two top distaffers who alternated at the top throughout the campaign. Either could be considered #1 because both are all-time greats, and there was plenty more to come in their stories, which we will cover in the final part of this series.

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