Racing / Class of '93: New breed slides into mediocrity: Opera House, Zafonic and Grand Lodge head the Flat ratings but the handicappers warn of a slump in standards: Richard Edmondson on a dearth of quality

THE Flat-racing class of 1993, like the team of 1992, have been assessed as a bad lot and there are signs that British racing is on a destructive path.

In defining last season an annus mediocris, the International Classification Committee, the body which rates Europe's top horses, yesterday identified lack of competition among two-year-olds and poor prize money as factors behind the decline in the standard of thoroughbred performance.

Modern belief among many of Britain's leading trainers is that potentially outstanding animals should be given a light campaign in their first season, but Geoffrey Gibbs, Britain's senior handicapper, believes this technique is stunting development of some horses.

'I totally understand that there are horses whose constitutions or stage of development preclude a career at two, but don't tell me that is true of the breed as a whole,' Gibbs said.

'In whatever field of sport you take, athletics, boxing, swimming or tennis, competition as you mature is a requirement of progression. These kids don't play at tennis at 13 for the fun of it, they're toughening themselves up for the real world of Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow for when they become adult players.

'On the evidence of our figures you have to ask if it is a sound idea that you cosset a potential mile and a half horse as a two-year-old for what he may do at three.'

The statistics make sad reading for those who cherish the improvement of the breed. In the top category (the 120-plus rated animals), the number of three-year-olds to qualify was the second lowest in the 17- year history of the Classifications. The previous year was the lowest.

The last two seasons have also been the worst for older horses (four-year-olds and up), a category headed this time by Opera House (129), while the top-rated juvenile of 1992, Grand Lodge (120), has attracted the lowest figure of any leading two-year-old.

'Present and future racing historians may well find it one of the more forgettable seasons since International Classifications began and it is being by no means ungenerous to label 1993 an annus mediocris,' Michael Byrne, chairman of the committee, said. 'Sadly to say, this applied to the majority of age groupings and no name emerged fit to enter the pantheon of equine champions.'

The one horse who could have made that leap, and the top-rated performer of 1993, was Zafonic, whose career ended before he could build on a brilliant 2,000 Guineas victory. The French colt earned a figure of 130, the lowest awarded to the top horse in the Classifications since their introduction in 1977.

Below him in the table stand White Muzzle (127) and Commander In Chief (127), who emerges as one of the poorer Derby winners of modern times.

The other factor which appears to be holding back British racing may be even harder to solve. Because here the band of folk who will have to change their ways is the bookmakers.

Gibbs considers that good horses improve only when matched against each other, and the scant prize money on offer in these islands is sending the cream of the crop in search of prizes elsewhere, to countries where racing finances are fuelled by Tote monopolies. 'You can go and win a Listed race in Italy which is worth more money than a Group Three here and they are not as fiercely contested,' Gibb said.

'And unless you can assemble the horses rated 110 and 115, you are not going to measure the true ability of the 120s,' he said. 'You require competition to be able to evaluate the racehorse. The facility by which you can travel horses from one country to another has diluted competition, and you would have to say the prize money on offer has some effect.'

AN abrupt about-turn by Ascot emerged last night when it was announced the Queen Alexandra Stakes is to be reinstated as a two-mile-six-furlong contest. Plans to turn it into a 10-furlong handicap are being shelved. The plans had aroused fierce protest. The Royal Ascot race, at 129 years old one of the oldest races in the calendar, is one of only five Flat races competed over a distance in excess of two and a half miles. Among those who protested were Peter O'Sullevan, Lord Howard de Walden and Dick Hern.

--------------------------------------------------- RATINGS FOR THE LEADING TWO-YEAR-OLDS --------------------------------------------------- 120 Grand Lodge 119 Stonehatch 118 Lemon Souffle Lost World (Fr) Nicolotte Sunshack (Fr) Turtle Island 117 Coup De Genie (Fr) First Trump 116 King's Theatre Owington Polish Laughter Signe Divin (Fr) 115 Colonel Collins Manntari (Irl) Mister Baileys Redoubtable 114 Carmot Concordial Las Meninas (Irl) Overbury Psychobabble (Fr) Sierra Madre (Fr) Velvet Moon Wessam Prince (Fr) 113 Bonash (Fr) Fadeyev (Fr) Flagbird (Fr) Prophecy Torrismondo 112 Celtic Arms (Fr) Chimes Band (Fr) Fumo Di Londra Mehthaaf Risky Ultimo Imperatore Unblest Zindari (Fr) 111 Alanees Fairy Heights Gothic Dream (Irl) River Deep State Performer Tatami The Deep --------------------------------------------------- GB-trained unless stated; figures represent lb ---------------------------------------------------

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