Although it may to some seem calumny to reduce the artistic beauty of the thoroughbred to the science of a set of figures, ratings are the tried-and-tested method of assessing athletic ability. And yesterday heads joined hearts in the paean of praise heaped upon the burgeoning young talent that is the elegant St Nicholas Abbey. The runaway winner of the Racing Post Trophy will be named champion European juvenile by the international handicappers and the boffins at Timeform, who produce the annual bible, can name only three better two-year-olds since Celtic Swing set a modern standard 15 years ago.
Matthew Tester, the British Horseracing Authority handicapper in charge of the youngest generation, admitted yesterday to some relief after watching St Nicholas Abbey and Johnny Murtagh put their rivals to the sword at Doncaster. After a series of false dawns and then a four-way photo in the Dewhurst Stakes, Britain's other significant juvenile test, he had been desperately seeking something out of the ordinary.
"At last I've found my champion," he said. "In the Racing Post Trophy there was a group of horses who had read the script, and delivered. But the search has been frustrating. Early on, it was Canford Cliffs who looked outstanding; he hacked up in his maiden, he hacked up in the Coventry, then he was narrowly beaten in the Morny and we never saw him again.
"Then the candidate seemed to be Arcano. He won his maiden, won the July Stakes, beat Canford Cliffs and the excellent filly Special Duty in the Morny, but we never saw him again, either. The Dewhurst came and went, and still nothing obviously superior.
"The Racing Post Trophy was last chance saloon. There were three really strong candidates – Al Zir, Elusive Pimpernel and St Nicholas Abbey – each unbeaten, and a powerful supporting cast. Two furlongs to go and Al Zir and Elusive Pimpernel are flat to the boards and both running on strongly and behind them is J Murtagh with the luxury of choosing just when to breeze past them."
Tester intends to propose a rating of 124 for St Nicholas Abbey, which compares extremely favourably with recent young champions, on the basis of both style and substance. "Four unhurried lengths," he added. "It was all so smooth. He may only be one horse power but this is still a Rolls-Royce of a horse. My rating puts him well clear of anything else and I would be surprised if my colleagues have seen a better two-year-old performance this year."
With one exception, the last six European champions set a decent yardstick with their subsequent achievements. Mastercraftsman, with a rating of 122, took this year's Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James' Palace Stakes; New Approach (126) the Derby and Champion Stakes; Teofilo (123) raced no more; George Washington (124) the 2,000 Guineas and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes; Shamardal (123) the French Derby and Bago (121) the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
On the Timeform scale, since Celtic Swing earned an almost unprecedented rating of 138 with his 12-length solo tour de force in the 1994 Racing Post Trophy, only Xaar (132), Johannesburg (127) and New Approach (127) have bettered St Nicholas Abbey's mark of 126p. "His rating makes him the leading juvenile," said Timeform's Jamie Lynch. "He's 1lb ahead of Canford Cliffs with the promise of better to come." Celtic Swing, of course, never properly fulfilled his precocious potential and Sea The Stars ended his juvenile season on 109p. But if it were only a numbers game, where would be the fun?
Aidan O'Brien, having conquered the European juvenile scene with St Nicholas after his charges Beethoven, Fencing Master and Steinbeck finished first, second and fourth in the Dewhurst, has his sights set on America, with both Beethoven and Alfred Nobel in the Juvenile Dirt at the Breeders' Cup meeting in California on Saturday week, and Viscount Nelson in the turf equivalent.
Other Ballydoyle plans confirmed Rip van Winkle as the stable's Classic contender, with Mastercraftsman heading for the Dirt Mile, Man Of Iron for the Marathon and Lily Langtry for the Juvenile Fillies' Turf.
Beethoven's Newmarket victory was boosted yesterday when eighth-placed Free Judgement, who had been reduced to a pacemaking role for his better-fancied Jim Bolger stablemate Chabal, ran for himself at Leopardstown and showed his true colours by winning the feature Kilavullen Stakes. And at the Co Dublin track Murtagh, going for his first Irish jockeys' title for 11 years, increased his lead over Pat Smullen to four by taking the colts' maiden on Don Carlos for O'Brien.
Turf account Sue Montgomery
Lovely Thought (2.30 Catterick)
Blew the cobwebs away with a good effort in defeat two weeks ago and now drops back to the minimum trip for the first time in lesser company.
Starkat (4.10 Yarmouth)
Handicap debutante who confirmed her progress on her first run for the Jane Chapple-Hyam yard last time and returns to a track where she has already proved her efficacy under today's conditions.
One to Watch
Best Oscar (A Turnell) is probably no world-beater but has already won a three-mile point-to-point in Ireland and, after a sound hurdling debut over two miles on Saturday, looks sure to score when upped in trip.
Where the money's going
What A Friend is 5-2 favourite with the sponsors for Saturday's Bet 365 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Implication (3.50 Southwell).