Racing: Johannesburg best in the world

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The Independent Online

Ratings, the beloved of sports anoraks, do, largely, confirm only what gut feeling tells us. Flat racing's annual statfest is the International Classifications, by which the senior handicappers from Britain, Ireland and beyond grade the top performers. The latest edition, the judgements on the classes of 2001, were revealed yesterday and made official that Johannesburg was the best two-year-old in the world last year; Galileo was the best European three-year-old; Sakhee was more brilliant than his stablemate Fantastic Light; and that the Classic fillies and milers were not much cop.

The statistics also confirm something else that has been a creeping suspicion for a few years now, that Britain is no longer the centre of the thoroughbred universe. The percentage of élite runners trained in this country is falling in all age groups, with the disparity most notable among the youngest generation. The ratio of British-trained juveniles rated 110 or above fell from 71 per cent in 2000 to 45 per cent last year, largely in favour of the Irish.

Or, more precisely, in favour of Ballydoyle. Aidan O'Brien had charge of not only Johannesburg (his third successive teenage champion, after Fasliyev and Minardi) but 11 others among the 40 youngsters in question, including seven in the top 14.

Johannesburg's mark of 126, which he earned by seeing off America's best in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on dirt (though he would have topped the ratings anyway by dint of his Middle Park Stakes win here), is the best achieved by a two-year-old since Xaar was awarded 127 in 1997, and has been otherwise superseded only by Arazi's 130 and Reference Point's 127 since the Classifications took on their present guise in 1986.

But he may find his honour something of a poisoned chalice; two-year-old champions are more notable for their subsequent failures than successes.

The young star is judged 4lb superior to his stablemate Hawk Wing and the one bright spot on the home front, the dazzling Richard Hannon-trained filly Queen's Logic, both on 122. Then come three 119ers, Rock of Gibraltar, Dubai Destination and Captain Rio, and a pair on 117, High Chaparral and France's leading juvenile Act One.

In detail, though, ratings are only an interpretation, a transmogrification of the beauty of a galloping racehorse into dry statistics and, as such, can be damned lies. They provide a talking point in bars and a selling point for a potential stallion, even if it is on the lines of "champion three-year-old in Italy over six and a half furlongs on a wet Wednesday".

But they also provide, with the brush of Monet rather than Rockwell, the means to place horses on time's pantheon. Despite his overwhelming victories in the Epsom and Curragh Derbies, Galileo, at 129, has emerged both as a lesser athlete than his immediate predecessor Sinndar, who earned 133, and the mighty American champion Point Given (130), the top three-year-old of 2001 after winning two legs of the US Triple Crown and three other Grade One races.

Galileo is, though, a thoroughly above-average Derby winner and a welcome confirmation of the Blue Riband's reviving status. The same can be said for the St Leger; Milan (125) was the best winner of the oldest Classic in more than a decade. This year he will be in the ring with last season's overall heavyweight, Sakhee.

If fear of being poached by Godolphin is tending to keep British juveniles under wraps, another factor from the Dubai-based outfit, that of keeping top middle-distance horses in training at four and beyond and campaigning them worldwide, has rather spoiled us and for all his wide-margin brilliance in the Arc and York International and that agonising near-miss in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Sakhee (133) is not – yet – as good as Dubai Millennium (134) or Daylami (135).

But all these figures are merely recording the past. What we really want to know is what to follow this year and who better to act as guides than two of the men who can wear hooded zip-up jackets with real style. I give you firstly Irish ace Garry O'Gorman, who put forward Galileo and Imagine 12 months ago. "Milan will be the champion middle distance horse," Gorman said, "Hawk Wing will make it easy for Ballydoyle to send Johannesburg to the Kentucky Derby rather than the Guineas, and Quarter Moon would have a serious chance in the Oaks."

Britain's Matthew Tester, the two-year-old expert, goes for one golden girl and one colt of a darker hue. "It is no secret that I am in love with Queen's Logic, and hope never to see her beaten," he said, "and although I was not enamoured with the British two-year-old colts there is a Folkestone maiden winner called Tikkun who will disappoint me if he does not win a Group race this year."

2001: TOP 2YOs (horse, rating, trainer): Johannesburg 126 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Hawk Wing 122 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Queen's Logic 122 Mick Channon; Captain Rio 119 Richard Whitaker; Dubai Destination 119 David Loder; Rock Of Gibraltar 119 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Act One 117 Jonathan Pease (Fr); High Chaparral 117 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Zipping 116 Robert Collet (Fr); Ballingarry 115 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Castle Gandolfo 115 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Landseer 115 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Naheef 115 David Loder; Shaanmer 115 Andre Fabre (Fr).

TOP 3YOs: Point Given 130 Bob Baffert (USA); Galileo 129 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Squirtle Squirt 128 Bobby Frankel (USA); Kurofune 125 Kunihide Matsuda (Japan); Milan 125 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Monarchos 125 John Ward (USA); Mozart 125 Aidan O'Brien (Irl); Storming Home 124 Barry Hills; Banks Hill 123 Andre Fabre (France); Congaree 123 Bob Baffert (USA); Jungle Pocket 123 Sakae Watanabe (Japan); Noverre 123 Saeed bin Suroor.

TOP OLDER HORSES: Sakhee 133 Saeed bin Suroor; Fantastic Light 129 Saeed bin Suroor; Tiznow 128 Jay Robbins (USA); Delaware Township 127 Benjamin Perkins (USA); Kona Gold 127 Bruce Headley (USA); Albert The Great 125 Nick Zito (USA); Slickly 125 Saeed bin Suroor; Aptitude 124 Bobby Frankel (USA); Bienamado 124 Paco Gonzalez (USA); Caller One 124 James Chapman (USA); Hightori 124 Philippe Demercastel (France); Lido Palace 124 Bobby Frankel (USA); Val Royal 124 Julio Canani (USA).

Owl still on the prowl

Arctic Owl, a 20-1 shot for the Champion Hurdle, pleased connections in a workout after racing at Huntingdon yesterday.

The James Fanshawe-trained Irish St Leger winner, who has yet to race over hurdles, worked with stablemates Hors La Loi III and Eternal Spring over a mile and a half.

At the finish, Hors La Loi III and Arctic Owl finished upsides on the bridle with Eternal Spring a close third.