Ratings, whereby the art of a thoroughbred in full glorious flight is translated to the science of a mathematical formula, may seem the work of an anorak-clad devil to those who revel in the beauty of the beast. But it's figures, in the form of assessments for handicaps, that keep the rank-and-file game going and, at the highest levels, provide a yardstick by which champions of different eras can be meaningfully and dispassionately compared.
Racing's way of assessing the ability of its protagonists over the years on an unvarying scale makes it perhaps unique among sports. Gut feeling counts for nothing, neither does the prestige or number of races won, nor earnings, track records, being unbeaten or being a public favourite. Quality of racecourse performance is what is measured; the aim being to put a figure on that ephemeral quality, class.
Yesterday, in the wake of Harbinger's visually extraordinary 11-length success under one-off rider Olivier Peslier in the country's top all-aged contest, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the boffins at Timeform, regarded as the "bible" of its field, put their necks on the line with a provisional rating of 142 for the colt. To put that in perspective, that is below only Sea-Bird, Brigadier Gerard and Tudor Minstrel since the firm's first annual volume was published in 1948, and the equal of, or above, the likes of Ribot, Mill Reef, Dancing Brave, Dubai Millennium, Shergar, Vaguely Noble and last year's celebrity, Sea The Stars.
It is possible for one outstanding performance to define a horse's career, but rare, and the Timeform spokesman Kieran Packman stressed that Harbinger's rating was a mid-season provisional one, perfectly capable of being adjusted downwards after a longer, more reflective view at the end of the season. "It remains to be seen," he said, "if Harbinger can repeat such a stunning effort and he won't be adjudged a 'true' 142 horse until the season's out. But such a wide-margin victory at the highest level is obviously extremely rare and, assessed as a one-off performance on the day, it really was a run of outstanding merit."
The last horse to win a Group One race by 11 lengths could be held up as a salutary lesson in too-hasty judgement. That was Hawk Wing, who produced a devastating performance in the Lockinge Stakes seven years ago but cannot be regarded as a champion. Harbinger's romp in Saturday's £1m Betfair-sponsored contest looked less flukey, though, even if this year's middle-distance Classic crop – the pro tem best of whom, Cape Blanco, chased him home – are beginning to look distinctly average.
The rapidly improving four-year-old has the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, one of the very few top prizes not yet taken by his trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, pencilled in. He is already as short as evens but lying in wait will be such as Fame And Glory, Cape Blanco's older, better Ballydoyle stablemate, and locals such as Behkabad, Sarafina and Byword.
And King George winners, even easy ones, have a mixed record in Paris in the autumn; Dylan Thomas, Lammtarra, Dancing Brave, Mill Reef, Ballymoss and Ribot are the only six to have completed the double in the same campaign, and Montjeu, Daylami, Generous, Troy and Nijinsky are among those who failed.
Harbinger, who carries the pale blue silks of one of Highclere Racing's 12-share upmarket syndicates, emerged from his Ascot endeavours with a hair barely turned. His young stablemate Workforce, a brilliant-looking winner of last month's Derby but a sorry fifth of six on Saturday as 8-11 favourite, will undergo a thorough physical examination after his disappointing performance, for which too-fast ground
was blamed in the immediate aftermath.
"I think the ground will have been part of it," said Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager to his owner, Khalid Abdullah, yesterday, "but not the only reason. He seemed fine this morning, but obviously we'll be checking him out to see if there is anything amiss." One consolation for the Abdullah camp is that Harbinger is a son of, and fine advertisement for, one of its star stallions, Dansili.
And yesterday's top-level winner, Lady Jane Digby, is a daughter of another of the Juddmonte sires, Oasis Dream. The Grosser Dallmayr-Preis at Munich is not a race to challenge the status of the King George, but for a breeding prospect like Kirsten Rausing's five-year-old, who recovered from a broken hip last year, a Group One win of any kudos is invaluable, and full credit goes to her trainer, Mark Johnston, for identifying the opportunity.
But there was disappointment for Britain's raiders in France yesterday. The Royal Ascot winner Approve, owned by another Highclere syndicate, finished only third, as favourite, in the Prix Robert Papin and the best of the raiders in the Prix Eugene Adam was Xtension, in fourth.
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Wake Up Call (3.45 Yarmouth)
Scored a decisive success over course and distance in May on her sole run this term. That was only the fifth run of her career and she is surely open to further improvement.
Ambrogina (2.30 Wolverhampton)
Caught flat-footed in a small field over this trip on her handicap debut and should appreciate a faster pace today, off a lower mark.
One to Watch
Doric Lady (J A R Toller)
Finished last on her most recent run after missing the break and before that had nowhere to go in traffic. She is dropping down the ratings and remains unexposed on the all-weather.
Where the Money's Going
Hawkeyethenoo, formerly a 12-1 shot for next Saturday's Stewards' Cup, is now 6-1 favourite with Ladbrokes after his victory at York two days ago assured his place, under a penalty, in the Goodwood sprint.
Chris McGrath's Nap
On Khee (8.40 Windsor)