Rewriting the record books was supposed to be Frankel's job. Now that he has retired, however, that work has been continued on his behalf by those officials charged with measuring his merit against champions of the past. Today a panel of international handicappers duly saluted Frankel as "the new benchmark of equine excellence" – but only after downgrading the previous one.
The unbeaten champion heads the 2012 World Thoroughbred Rankings on a rating of 140. But concern over the standards applied in earlier classifications has prompted their "recalibration" to achieve statistical consistency with those published over the last two decades. As a result, Dancing Brave has shed 3lb from the pinnacle of 141 he achieved in 1986 – enabling Frankel to leapfrog him as officially the best thoroughbred of the modern era.
The owner of Dancing Brave will certainly not object. For it was Prince Khaled Abdullah who also raced Frankel, and his stud is now promoting a stallion whose first book of mares was oversubscribed even at a fee of £125,000. Whether posterity will consider the changes too convenient, or calculated, is another matter.
It is not as if these figures ever have any absolute value. The handicappers contrived to raise Frankel's rating from 136, as a three-year-old, by evaluating his astonishing 11-length win in the Queen Anne Stakes as the equivalent of 12 and a half lengths (so presuming this fantastically energetic creature still to be in his comfort zone); and by treating his seven-length success in the Juddmonte International Stakes as worth nine and a quarter lengths. But they protest that the methodology has remained consistent – so that the length and a half by which Dancing Brave won the Arc, for instance, was generously appraised at 7lb.
The first classification, in 1977, exalted 145 horses at 120 or higher; since 1990, no crop has even mustered 40 at that level. Phil Smith, senior handicapper of the British Horseracing Authority, has developed a sliding scale, endorsed by international peers, that trims as many as 7lb off the class of 1977, down to 1lb off the 1991 rankings.
Apart from the usurped Dancing Brave, Alleged plunges from a share of second (with 140) to joint 14th (134); and Shergar (also 140) now slides to joint-fourth (136). El Gran Senor, previously fifth (138), must now settle for joint-seventh (135). Conversely, Sea The Stars finds himself elevated from ninth to joint-fourth. And an unaltered rating of 137 suddenly promotes Peintre Celebre from joint-sixth to third.
Some of the perceived slippage may reflect factors other than handicapping culture. The modern concentration of top-class bloodstock in so few hands, for instance, has had consequences for competition – whether because successful operations keep their best horses apart, or because failing rivals have diluted standards.
But Smith had been uncomfortable, in rating Sea The Stars 136 in 2009, with the constant obligation to attach a caveat to earlier ratings. "It was about time we grasped the nettle," he said. "If you were critical, you would probably say that we should have done it years ago." Garry O'Gorman, Smith's Irish colleague, agreed. "It became imperative, not just to acknowledge the discrepancies, but to remedy them," he said. "Because the elephant in the room wasn't going away."
One melancholy footnote. Generous, though shaved from 137 to 136, actually moves up from joint-sixth to joint-fourth. But he did not enjoy his new status long, the death promptly being reported of the 1991 Derby winner at the age of 25.
The class of 2012
World Thoroughbred Rankings 2012 Frankel (GB) 140; Cirrus Des Aigles (Fr) 131; Black Caviar (Aus) 130; Excelebration (Irl) 130; Wise Dan (US) 129; Orfevre (Japan) 127.
Juvenile Classification (Europe only) Dawn Approach (Jim Bolger) 124; Kingsbarns (Aidan O'Brien) 118; George Vancouver (O'Brien) 117; Leitir Mor (Jim Bolger) 117; Olympic Glory (Richard Hannon) 117; Reckless Abandon (Clive Cox) 117
Chris McGrath's Nap
First Avenue (6.15 Kempton) Can follow up his win in this last year, having been in fine form over timber.
Vitznau (5.45 Kempton) On a laughable mark and suggested he might soon take advantage last time.
One to watch
Mount Benbulben (Gordon Elliott) Looked to be getting his act together over fences when a close second at Naas last weekend.
Where the money's going
Sam Winner is 8-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival.
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