If Flat racing is your game, it is the equivalent of the first snowdrops. No matter how much sleet must still fall before the Lincoln Handicap, the publication of the World Thoroughbred Rankings in the middle of January always prompts the first, tentative dreams of what the garden might look like by the summer. Yesterday, however, the green shoots did seem rather sparse.
As the official handicapper of two-year-olds put it himself, 2005 was "a weird year". While George Washington achieved a perfectly respectable rating as the champion juvenile of Europe - formally measured as 124, against a median of 123 - the overall pool of young talent made a strange departure from precedent.
As a rule, Matthew Tester finishes the season with around 60 juveniles rated 110 or higher. In 2005, he could find just 42. Between them the five leading trainers based in Britain last year - Sir Michael Stoute, Richard Hannon, Mark Johnston, Barry Hills and Saeed bin Suroor - could muster only one colt rated higher than 110. Most astonishing of all, that was one more than managed by the entire Maktoum family.
Given the bewildering scale of their investment, both in stallions and in the sales ring, that represents a spellbinding failure. The Godolphin stable alone was widely believed to have access to 300 two-year-olds last year. In contrast Kevin Ryan, from 26 juvenile winners, ended up with three rated over 110. As for the Maktoums' natural opponents in the heavyweight division, Aidan O'Brien and his patrons at Coolmore Stud finished with no fewer than eight of the 32 European juveniles rated over 110 - including George Washington himself as well as the top filly, Rumpelstiltskin. All but one of these were by Coolmore stallions; the other is by Storm Cat, in whom its owners have invested heavily for lifetime breeding rights.
In that context, a boycott of Coolmore sires - undertaken by the Maktoums at the yearling sales last autumn - would seem a rather eccentric solution. More pertinent has been a spending spree to reinforce Godolphin for the coming season. As well as top-class older horses in Electrocutionist and Shawanda, the stable has also recruited several juveniles, including Palace Episode, who won Ryan his second Group One prize of the autumn in the Racing Post Trophy.
Some misguided observers deplored that particular deal, professing pity for Ryan and his overpowered patrons. They should bear in mind that Con Marnane bought the colt for $100,000 (£60,000) as a yearling in Kentucky with the idea of making a profit on him at the breeze-up sales, where he could not reach his reserve and was led away for 44,000 guineas. It seems safe to say that he must have been delighted to get the call from Godolphin, especially as the tail-swishing colt must now carry a Group One penalty for leading home a procession in diabolical ground at Doncaster.
On the other hand, nobody has managed to prise away Sir Percy from Anthony and Victoria Pakenham, who have kept their promise and left their unbeaten colt in the care of Marcus Tregoning. Yesterday, at a ceremony staged after the publication of the official ratings, they were among those honoured by the British Horseracing Board Flat Awards.
It must be said that the conjunction of these two events can be rather perplexing. The more cosmopolitan the classification, which nowadays embraces performers from Japan to the United States, the more parochial the BHB Awards inevitably seem. The handicappers saluted Hurricane Run as a global champion, giving him a rating of 130 for his performance in winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, but because he never raced on British soil he is ineligible for a BHB Award.
Instead Motivator, formally rated 125, was the BHB Champion Three-Year-Old and indeed Horse of the Year. And the awkward fact is that none of the five British Classic winners won another race. Of the 26 performances ranked above 120 by older horses in 2005, moreover, only three were credited to horses trained in Britain: Alkaased, Starcraft and Norse Dancer.
At least the logic is fairly comprehensible, which is more than can be said for a preposterous insistence on saluting as "champions" the jockeys who accumulated not the most winners, but the most prize-money.
The 2005 apprentice championship, as understood by everyone else, provided a mesmerising marketing opportunity, a duel to the wire between a young woman and a Muslim. But the BHB champion apprentice is not Hayley Turner, nor Saleem Golam, but Philip Makin - thanks entirely to a superior tally of place money. And the BHB champion jockey, Kieren Fallon, rode precisely 100 fewer winners than Jamie Spencer during the turf campaign in Britain. In fairness the BHB has vowed to review this policy, along with the amorphous span of the turf season.
As a footnote, it is worth recording Tester's belief that the most exciting juvenile in Britain was Nakheel. Winner of a maiden at Hamilton and a listed race at Pontefract, his achievements to date leave him just short of the élite, on 107. But he is trained by Mark Johnston for Hamdan al-Maktoum, and you know what they say about he who laughs last.
NB: The Violin Player
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