An astronomer can quantify the distance between stars, or their relative angles, but he should not be expected to write a sonnet about them as well. That is not to say he will be immune to wonder. Sure enough, a panel of official handicappers yesterday urged "a more panoramic perspective" on the constellation that illuminated 2009 like few years in Turf history.
The World Thoroughbred Rankings give Sea The Stars a formal rating of 136, 6lbs ahead of Goldikova, the dual Breeders' Cup Mile winner. Rip Van Winkle and Fame And Glory, beaten repeatedly by Sea The Stars but Group One winners in their own right, are 129 and 128 respectively. Then come Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, the outcome of whose duel for US Horse of the Year may or may not be anticipated by the verdict of those charged with assessing their form – who favour Zenyatta by 1lb.
In "a year of exceptional racehorses", the clear water dividing Sea The Stars from the rest might seem ample, but the international handicappers seemed reconciled to dissent. For no fewer than eight other champions have had a higher rating since the original International Classification in 1977. Nor has it always been marginal: Dancing Brave was rated fully 5lbs his superior in 1986; and Shergar finished on 140 in 1981. And yet plenty of people have been acclaiming Sea The Stars as the paragon of all time.
In an exculpatory "statement of handicapping practice", the panel fought back on two fronts. First, they distanced themselves from the early classifications, as limited in both rigour and range. Second, they reiterated that horses like Sea The Stars and Zenyatta make things harder by their habit of keeping something in reserve.
Sea The Stars could only warrant a higher rating with more extravagant winning margins, like Shergar; or by finding competition good enough to force him higher, like Dancing Brave. As it was, there were times when the Irish handicapper, Garry O'Gorman, found himself on the verge of panic.
"After Sea The Stars became the first horse in 20 years to win both the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, I think his Epsom rating was only sixth best in the last 10 runnings," O'Gorman said. "I did say at the time that I found it very hard to see him being beaten again. But I was worried that there were no horses around to bring out of Sea The Stars how much he had in hand. We're relieved to have got him to 136."
O'Gorman doubts whether Dancing Brave would be rated 141 nowadays. Though he admittedly won a vintage Arc, he was generously allowed 7lbs for a length and a half. "Sea The Stars is rated on what he actually achieved," O'Gorman explained. "Now if Zarkava had stayed in training, or if Sea The Stars had gone to the Breeders' Cup and met Zenyatta, that would have been illuminating. You'd be taking them out of their shells that way. As it was, they were playing within themselves, not showing their full hand. And that is frustrating for us."
Nobody, then, can infer that Sea The Stars would necessarily have given Zenyatta an 8lbs hiding at Santa Anita. "We're not saying these ratings are a finite expression of their ability," O'Gorman said. "There's no way of knowing in real terms how they would have fared against each other. There has been a lot of discussion about how Sea The Stars compares with champions of yesteryear. But when it can be so difficult to compare horses even of the same generation, it puts that task into context."
Suffice to say, it was a vintage year – not least for fillies, who account for three of the top six on the planet. And at 124 the champion juvenile, St Nicholas Abbey is eclipsed only by New Approach, Johannesburg, Fasliyev and Xaar during the 14 years Matthew Tester has patrolled the division. "Authorized, Motivator and High Chaparral were rated either 116 or 117 after their wins in the Racing Post Trophy," Tester noted. "And all went on to win the Derby. In fact, with the exception of Teofilo, who did not race again, the last four champion juveniles all went on to win a Classic. So you have to think that St Nicholas Abbey is odds-on to do the same."
On the other hand, this time last year Sea The Stars was still bubbling under on 112. Regardless, on a day when jumps trainers find sanctuary in an all-bumper card at Southwell, it is certainly a prospect to warm the cockles.
2009 vintage: How they scored
2009 world rankings:
136 Sea The Stars
129 Rip Van Winkle
128 Fame And Glory
127 Rachel Alexandra
125 Gio Ponti
Last 10 champions:
2009 Sea The Stars 136
2008 New Approach/Curlin 131
2007 Manduro 129
2006 Invasor 129
2005 Hurricane Run 130
2004 Ghostzapper 130
2003 Hawk Wing 133
2002 Rock Of Gibraltar 128
2001 Sakhee 133
2000 Dubai Millennium 134
2009 top juveniles:
124 St Nicholas Abbey
120 Passion For Gold
119 Jan Vermeer
118 Canford Cliffs
118 Vale Of York
117 Special Duty
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Novikov (3.35 Lingfield) Immediate improvement over jumps since joining his in-form trainer, notably in a handicap at Leicester last time, and returns to the Flat 3lbs lower than his last winning mark.
Borasco (2.25 Lingfield) Confirmed herself on a feasible rating nowadays when stepped up to this trip at Southwell last week, and might see things out better still on this sharper track.
One to watch
Silken Promise (W R Swinburn) has improved since being ridden positively in cheekpieces, second three times running, but the tactics were probably overdone on a tiring surface at Southwell last week.
Where the money's going
Punjabi, whose trainer admits himself desperate to find a new target following the abandonment of the Welsh Champion Hurdle, is 8-1 from 10-1 with Coral to defend his Cheltenham crown in March.