The press conference staged by a panel of international handicappers in London yesterday was briefly delayed by a fire alarm test, and really that set the tone for everything that followed. For the publication of the World Thoroughbred Rankings is itself a comforting ritual – one that shows the system to be functioning soundly, while permitting no sensible person to take the more sensational implications too literally.
You might easily be startled, otherwise, by the suggestion that Harbinger would not just have beaten Workforce in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, given the opportunity, but would have thrashed him by four lengths. That inference is available in the rating Harbinger earned with that eye-watering, 11-length success in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot last July. At 135, Harbinger is formally rated 6lb superior to any other horse on the planet in 2010, and only 1lb behind Sea The Stars, whose unprecedented campaign the previous year was supposed to define an epoch, rather than a single season. But just as the official panel offered Sea The Stars a rather gallant apology for the parameters of their trade – which could not measure dimensions latent in his conservative running style – so they were left with little option but to reward Harbinger for the contrasting extravagance of his performance at Ascot.
They had their own grounds, then, for sharing the sense of wretched misfortune that suffused the sport when Harbinger broke down. Now the horse would never be able to test the substance of what he seemed to achieve that day. It may well be that the King George, contested by just five others on firm ground, somewhat fell into his lap; that the failure of Workforce was only the most egregious among several. Harbinger has been given full credit for a 12lb improvement; and for beating a colt, Cape Blanco, who won Group One prizes either side of this defeat. No older horse has achieved this kind of rating since Alleged in 1978.
Beholden as they are to emphatic winners, the handicappers found themselves obliged to reduce those superlative mares Zenyatta and Goldikova to 125 from higher ratings the previous year – despite each having broken new ground. At 128, however, Workforce became the fourth consecutive Derby winner to end the year as the world's top three-year-old (albeit jointly with the 2,000 Guineas winner Makfi).
Matthew Tester, responsible for British juveniles, had distinguished himself at the equivalent gathering last year by recommending Workforce as a Classic prospect on the basis of his maiden success at Goodwood. He warrants due respect, then, in reproaching those who had assumed Frankel to be the most accomplished member of his generation in 2010. Instead he shares top billing with Dream Ahead, who finished distressed when disappointing behind Frankel in the Dewhurst.
"Dream Ahead and David Simcock have not got the credit they deserve," he said. "This horse won his maiden by nine lengths, won a Group One on his second start, and then won a Group One sprint by nine lengths. If he was trained by Aidan O'Brien and his sire was Galileo, you'd be jumping all over him. Frankel owes his rating to a 10-length beating of Klammer in the Royal Lodge Stakes, and I'm far from convinced that was a superior performance."
But Tester warned that Dream Ahead's physical precocity last year – and stamina limitations – would make it hard for Dream Ahead to maintain his rating. At the same time, he reckoned Frankel too short at 5-4 for the 2,000 Guineas. "We're all hoping he's the real deal," he said. "But we've seen a certain fragility in him, too. People have talked about how keen he was after a bump in the Dewhurst, but really it was no worse than you would see in any two-year-old race at Wolverhampton. I do think he's a horse who needs things to go right."
He commended Wootton Bassett as better value at 16-1. And in the Tester notebook? Well, Carlton House, trained for the Queen by Sir Michael Stoute, had impressed in a Newbury maiden; and an unbeaten filly with Michael Jarvis, named Zoowraa. "But this is not a year of dark horses," he stressed. "The touchstone will be Frankel."
Top of the world: Leaders in the thoroughbred rankings
The world champions:
2010 Harbinger (GB trained) 135
2009 Sea The Stars (Irl) 136
2008 Curlin (US)/New Approach (Irl) 130
2007 Manduro (Fr) 131
2006 Invasor (US) 129
World class of 2010:
Harbinger (GB) 135
Blame (US) 129
Makfi (Fr), Quality Road (US), Workforce (GB) 128
Europe's top juveniles:
Dream Ahead (trained David Simcock) 126
Frankel (Henry Cecil) 126
Pathfork (Jessica Harrington), Wootton Bassett (Richard Fahey) 120
Chris McGrath's Nap
Melange (2.50 Doncaster) Well treated on his best and offered encouragement at Catterick last time, when the only one to keep tabs on the winner before the tank ran dry.
Cygnet (12.35 Doncaster) Brought down at the final flight last time, when still holding every chance.
One to watch
Island Jim (Charlie Longsdon) Was last off the bridle when napped at 25-1 at Folkestone recently and again travelled powerfully for a long way at Fontwell last week.
Where the money's going
Khyber Kim is 3-1 from 7-2 with the sponsors for the William Hill Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday.