Simon Rowlands: On the World Thoroughbred Rankings

Frankel: Now the highest-rated by the WTR

Timeform's Head of Research and Product Development, Simon Rowlands, reflects on this week's announcement of the World Thoroughbred Rankings.

"...robust procedures for assessing horses in general should be a given, especially for the official bodies. It remains to be seen whether 2012’s “recalibration” exercise ensures that’s the case in future."

Acknowledgement of past mistakes has been a powerful theme in public life in the last year, though in many cases those who have 'fessed up have been forced to do so rather than done so voluntarily. 

Quite whether the World Thoroughbred Rankings (WTR) feels its actions in revisiting historical ratings were "voluntary", or forced upon it by the increasingly untenable position of pretending that ratings from the not-so-distant past were directly comparable with ratings now, is not entirely clear. But, as with some other high-profile public admissions lately, the motivation seems to have been to exculpate at least as much as to atone. 

The WTR's "Recalibration" document, which has resulted in horses like Dancing Brave, Shergar and Alleged being downgraded posthumously, goes to some lengths to try to set the record straight and deserves credit for going further than it might have. But it does not adequately explain why the ongoing slippage - that has now been crudely rectified - happened in the first place, and why it had not been corrected previously.

By the admission of some on the committee, disquiet about past levels had been felt for many years. It seemed to take the embarrassment of continuing to maintain that Dancing Brave deserved a higher rating than Frankel finally to spur the committee into action.
There was nothing intrinsically "wrong" with the level of the International Classifications in the early days. They were pitched where they were pitched, and - imitation being the sincerest form of flattery - closely resembled Timeform's longer-established ratings' level in 1986, when Dancing Brave won the Arc and got a figure of 140 from Timeform (141 originally on International Classifications).
Indeed, there is a case to be made that this year's adjustment should have involved increasing the ratings of the top horses in recent years in line with how things started off, rather than the other way round. If that had happened, Frankel might now have been rated something like 144 by the WTR (Timeform 147).

But ratings were allowed to slip, despite the resources thrown at the enterprise, and this week's efforts to rectify matters are not altogether convincing.

For a start, it is unsatisfactory to attempt to establish the ratings of a small number of leading horses without reference to the wider horse population. Timeform not only standardises its ratings on a daily basis, it monitors population levels many times a year. It is unclear whether the BHA handicappers - and possibly their colleagues around the world - do engage in this elementary good practice.
Having taken that tack, the WTR could perhaps look to explain the puzzling fact that the ten worst years for the "top-57 mean" - according to their own revised figures - have all occurred this century. Other measures produce similar results. This is despite the significant increase in population size (not mentioned by WTR) since the early days of the International Classification. 

The alternative was presumably to admit that some of the mishandling of the situation took place on the WTR's watch. Timeform's own analysis - which draws upon ratings for the whole population and not just an isolated few - suggests that the WTR levels continued to slip until 2006. They have rebounded slightly since. 

These are far from the only areas in which Timeform's approach differs significantly with official handicapping methodology, a point which is discussed in the Frankel essay in Timeform's Global Rankings 2012 download.
The difference in levels between Timeform and WTR for the top horses in 2012 is roughly 4, having been a bit higher in 2011. There are not many bones of contention once that has been allowed for, though Timeform believes that Frankel should have been rated higher still and that the one-two in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man, have probably been over-rated.
What is much more difficult to understand is the continued exclusion of non-Europeans from the WTR list of two-year-olds. Timeform rates every race - good and bad - in North America these days, and, by its reckoning, eight of the best ten juveniles in the world in 2012 were trained in the US.     

Individual ratings are always going to be a source of dispute, and Timeform would certainly not claim always to get such ratings right. But robust procedures for assessing horses in general should be a given, especially for the official bodies. It remains to be seen whether 2012's "recalibration" exercise ensures that's the case in future.

TIMEFORM GLOBAL RANKINGS 2012 - OUT NOW! Ratings for the top horses around the world, essays on Frankel & Black Caviar, plus much, much more.

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