To aficionados of the Flat, reluctant to interrupt their hibernation even for Kauto Star, midwinter reliably offers one comforting ritual. And while the publication yesterday of the International Classification as usual prompted debate, not to mention dissent, unanimity was by no means confined to the identity of the most accomplished horse on the planet in 2011. For whatever different people may make of his present rating, the fact that Frankel will be around to strive for a new peak in 2012 guarantees a treat for them all.
As things stand, the official handicappers rate Frankel at 136, the same as Sea The Stars in 2009, and 4lb ahead of the Australian sprint sensation, Black Caviar. The fact that eight other champions have exceeded 136 since a Classification was first published in 1977 – notably Dancing Brave, rated 141 in 1986 – prompted the handicappers to renew the plea of exculpation they made in the case of Sea The Stars. The first 15 years of rankings they now consider inflated; moreover they pointed out that El Gran Senor, 138 in 1984, was the last miler to surpass Frankel even against those more generous standards.
If nothing else, however, his formal parity with Frankel is surely a timely reproach to those who have been so quick to forget Sea The Stars, in their haste to acclaim a thoroughbred without precedent. Sea The Stars, remember, had a style of running that frustrated the handicappers. They suspected he could have reached a higher ceiling, if only he had found a rival good enough to take him there. Frankel, in contrast, surely puts rather more of his cards on the table in his sensational, take-no-prisoners style. But Dominic Gardiner-Hill, the handicapper charged with assessing milers, is adamant that Frankel may have still more to offer.
"There's every chance he could put up a higher figure," he said. "Frankly, we don't know what the limit of his ability might be. He wasn't beaten even when everything went wrong for him, in the St James's Palace Stakes. At the moment I don't think anyone could say he is inferior to Sea The Stars – nor, equally, that he is superior."
It was not just at its very pinnacle that the British sport could celebrate a vintage year. For the first time since 1994, six of the top 10 thoroughbreds on the planet are trained in this country. Admittedly the premature retirement of Pour Moi, who won the Derby for France, left him marooned on 122, which beats just one of the past 15 Epsom winners. And Matthew Tester, responsible for the juvenile classification, lamented the meekest top rating of the past 25 years – which dubious distinction is shared, on 119, by Camelot and Dabirsim.
"But that doesn't mean they're not going to make a major impact at three," Tester stressed. "Bago was rated only 121 in 2003 but went on to win three Group One races, including the Arc. We're just saying that no two-year-old showed himself head and shoulders above the opposition, as happened last year."
Tester was criticised then for failing to elevate Frankel, who had won a Group Two by 10 lengths, above Dream Ahead, who was also ranked 126 after winning a Group One by nine. He has been duly gratified by the latter's three elite wins this time round, and insisted that it would likewise be "unfair to speculate Camelot into clear championship status" after his easy defeat of limited rivals in the Racing Post Trophy.
If obliged to separate the pair, Tester said he would favour Camelot on talent but Dabirsim on form, albeit he suspects that neither will show up in the Qipco 2,000 Guineas. On that basis he recommended Most Improved, a close third in the Dewhurst for Brian Meehan on his first start outside maiden company, as potentially overpriced. He also drew punters' attention to Bonfire, third after a troubled run when fast-tracked to a Group One in France by Andrew Balding.
Best of the best: 2011's global top 10
Flat racing's international elite ratings:
136 Frankel (trained in GB)
132 Black Caviar (Australia)
128 Cirrus Des Aigles (France), Danedream (Germany)
127 Canford Cliffs (GB), Rewilding (GB)
126 Dream Ahead; Nathaniel; xcelebration (all GB); So You Think (Ireland)
How last nine world champions rated:
2010 135 Harbinger
2009 136 Sea The Stars
2008 131 New Approach/Curlin
2007 129 Manduro
2006 129 Invasor
2005 130 Hurricane Run
2004 130 Ghostzapper
2003 133 Hawk Wing
2002 128 Rock Of Gibraltar
Chris McGrath's Nap
Earlsmedic (5.15 Kempton) Looks unlucky to have bumped into a smart one at Wolverhampton last week. This race is likely to be set up well for him, with plenty of pace up front.
Peedeeque (2.50 Doncaster) Yet another to improve for the switch to David O'Meara when scoring round here last time, arguably with more in hand than the handicapper seems to have allowed.
One to watch
Lucaindubai (Evan Williams) Hurdler was exposed to a pretty strong pace in the hot handicap at Sandown last Saturday and, on his return from a break, understandably flattened out into fifth after travelling well.
Where the money's going
Act Of Kalanisi is 10-1 from 14-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton next Saturday.