The publication of the World Thoroughbred Rankings (WTR) always sparks controversy. It was the same for the century or so when all we had to concern ourselves with was our domestic Free Handicap. Ratings are expressions of opinion – the opinion, certainly, of practised professionals who spend all their working hours forming it, but it can never attain the status of holy writ.

The verdicts handed down as ‘official’ may always be disputed. We don’t have to believe them, frequently we don’t. Officials themselves are relaxed about the fact they can’t expect their judgements to be universally accepted. But when the rankings for 2012 were revealed in mid-January, they came accompanied by something extra. In what was called a recalibration, revisions to some previous assessments were made. They – and, it must be said, plenty of others with opinions on the subject – felt a number of horses in the recent past had been overrated, and that adjustments needed to be made to facilitate more accurate comparisons of merit between the generations. This, it seemed, was calculated to invite even more controversy than usual.

Handicappers wanted to concur with the view, widely expressed by other authorities, that Frankel was the best in recent times. But the mark they assigned him was ‘only’ 140, 1lb less than was given to Dancing Brave in 1986, and identical with that awarded in 1978 to Alleged and in 1981 to Shergar. Dual 1991 Derby hero Generous and brilliant 1997 Arc victor Peintre Celebre had been assessed at 137 and Sea The Stars, who carried all before him in 2009, was given a mark of 136.

Some of those no longer seemed appropriate, the committee felt. Frankel was reckoned to have set the new standard, and a number of those former champions now seemed too close to him – one of them even ahead of him. Amendments were needed. What they decided was to leave Peintre Celebre and Sea The Stars where they had been placed initially, but to drop Generous by 1lb to 136, Dancing Brave by 3lb to 138, Shergar by 4lb to 136, and, perhaps most remarkably, bring dual Arc winner Alleged down by 6lb to 134. Some saw these moves as tampering with history, little more than a contrivance to ensure Frankel rose to the top. It wasn’t quite that, but was an attempt to correct perceptions that previous classifications had delivered, maybe even a laudable one. However, we are no more bound to believe the alterations than the originals. Was all the tinkering strictly necessary, when, according to other authorities, the rankings under-estimated Frankel’s merit?

Alleged might have been a shade too high, but dragging him down to 134 is an insult

The Racing Post, which began publication in Dancing Brave’s three-year-old season, made Frankel its all-time champion on 143. Timeform, a leading authority in the field of ratings for more than 60 years, went 147, placing him 2lb higher than Sea-Bird.

Even more emphatic in defining Frankel’s brilliance, John Whitley’s Racing Research, whose ratings have been generated solely by computer for 30 years, assessed the Galileo colt’s performances in the Queen Anne Stakes and Juddmonte International with a mark of 147, and his sign-off display in the Champion Stakes at an astonishing 149.

I remember the wonder I experienced on examining Racehorses of 1958, the first Timeform annual I purchased, and I have been a Timeform devotee since. I haven’t always agreed with its assessments but have come to regard them as usually reliable. Moreover, I witnessed Sea-Bird’s Arc, and have no doubt Frankel was superior, so if Sea-Bird was worth 145, I can’t quarrel with a 147 assignment for last season’s superstar.

Looking back into history
The classifications date only from 1977, and in 1965 the UK did not even have a Free Handicap for three-year-olds. How officialdom would have rated Sea-Bird’s form is beyond guessing. That year’s French Free Handicap, for three-year-olds and up, had Sea-Bird on 71kg, no less than 4kg higher than Free Ride, the top older horse. While I wouldn’t dispute some horses were flattered by past ratings, there could have been less tinkering if present assessors accepted Frankel was better than they have credited him with. The Post’s 143 doesn’t flatter him; something closer to the Timeform mark would have seemed appropriate to me.

As for the horses downgraded, I’d have left Shergar on 140 (also the Timeform assessment), and although Alleged might have been a shade too high (Timeform had him on 138), dragging him down to 134 is an insult. Not many horses win two Arcs – and he won both his with complete authority. Dancing Brave was inferior to Frankel but 138 is not high enough for him. I don’t want to give the impression I’m against the principle of revising ratings, because I’ve done some of it myself.

In A Century of Champions, the book John Randall and I compiled in 1999, we rated all the best horses since 1900. As the book was published by Timeform, whose own ratings had been appearing since 1947, it was a tad embarrassing to tell our paymasters that we sought the liberty of giving our own assessments, some of which differed from theirs. Fortunately, they let us do as we proposed.

The Timeform scale had been tried and trusted for half a century by then, so we didn’t feel the need to change much. We left Sea-Bird on top with 145, raised Ribot 1lb to 143 and brought Brigadier Gerard down 1lb to join him on the same mark. We took 2lb off Tudor Minstrel, reducing him to 142, but raised Nijinsky 2lb to 140. Most of the alterations we made were in that kind of range. However, we did find some assessments mystifying, if not completely eccentric. The 142 awarded to Windy City in 1951 seemed grotesque and although he was decidedly an exceptional two-year-old, our mark of 132 did him ample justice. (For the record, our top juvenile of the century was The Tetrarch, 134 in 1913, and only Tetratema and Tudor Minstrel ranked higher than Windy City.)

Another we found hard to fathom was Honeylight’s 130 in 1956. Wins in the Free Handicap and 1,000 Guineas, along with three crushing defeats, supposedly made her 2lb better than the previous season’s filly Triple Crown heroine Meld; by our lights she was 7lb or more inferior.

Most of the ratings that seemed inflated dated from the 1950s, but there was one from 1973 about which we had our doubts. Aureoletta, who reached the end of the season still a maiden after ten outings, was assessed at 118. We had to wonder whether that owed something to the fact she was owned by Phil Bull, Timeform’s boss.