Publication of the World Thoroughbred Ratings (WTR) highlighted two racing nations going in opposite directions. While 11 horses trained in Japan earned a figure of at least 120 – the best ever for that country – the ratings reflected a decline in quality at the top of the US ranks.
In both cases, the panel noted an evident multi-year trend driving these results. Analysis of past classifications shows there is considerable variance in the quality of horses at the peak of each country’s strengths; there is no writing off these results as a small-sample aberration.
In the case of Japan, it is easy to understand the reasons. It wasn’t until Seeking The Pearl won the 1998 Prix Maurice de Gheest that a Japanese-trained horse took a Group 1 in Europe. Since then, Japan has enjoyed rising success internationally, emboldened by increasingly strong competition domestically.
Moreover, while for years their racing authority’s protectionist policy prevented foreign investment, a more open approach has seen the influx of a handful of powerful bloodstock investors. Chief among them is Sheikh Mohammed, whose focus on Japan rose after Victoire Pisa and Transcend were one-two in the 2011 Dubai World Cup.
Victoire Pisa earned 122 and Transcend 121 in the classifications. But the current star of Japanese racing is their latest Triple Crown winner Orfevre. While his 123 fell 13lb short of Frankel, he will rate higher this year when he takes on international competition in races such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The organisation of Japanese racing, and its economy, has made this upsurge inevitable. The state-run pari-mutuel betting system is the biggest in the world, turning over more than twice its nearest rival, the US. And its breeding industry is the envy of the world.
The organisation of Japanese racing, and its economy, has made an upsurge inevitable
Japanese horses still took a long time to make an impact internationally, partly due to the insularity of their domestic focus. But results in such as the 2006 Melbourne Cup, in which Delta Blues and Pop Rock were first and second, have seen their hapless reputation on the world stage revised.
At the same time as the red line on the graph has been creeping up, the blue one has been steadily falling. Recently, the presence of one or two superstars has served to mask the declining strength of US racing at the top level, but this year there was no such saviour.
The highest-rated US runner on 124 is the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer, whose victory begged searching questions in and of itself. Written off as a poor winner of the 2010 Belmont Stakes, his win seemed more to expose the failings of those around him to sustain their form into the autumn.
Rates of attrition in the US, owing to factors like training and racing on tough dirt tracks, has always been a limiting factor where ratings are concerned. Big figures can be achieved by wide-margin wins over lesser foes, but more often it is competition which drives performances recognisable as elite.
This requires the small number of horses capable of high class form to remain in shape for a series of demanding races, but statistics and veterinary evidence point to US-trained horses standing fewer races now. One wonders whether the increased stringency of drug-testing procedures is making it trickier for trainers to keep their horses in peak form.
Whether US horses are less robust owing to being bred from runners whose frailties have themselves been masked by medication is a wider question.
It is not surprising the latest Classic crop – led by Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom on just 121 – became so thoroughly shredded by the rigours of competition that Grade 1s for their age group became more a test of survival than merit by season’s end. So much was lost by the failure of champion juvenile Uncle Mo.
By far the best story of the season was the rivalry between talented females Havre de Grace, US Horse of the Year, and Blind Luck; however their ratings of 120 and 119 make it clear we were not watching a duel between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. Those two are a reminder we don’t have to go back far to remember the impression great horses in the US can make. Yet it is easy to discern how the balance of power is swinging away from the US, a fact its parlous finances exacerbate.