I never have been a fan of how thoroughbred horses are ranked internationally. The fact that they are rated solely on the merit of their single best race seemed so, well, foreign to me. Add in the fact, that as a lifetime fan of sports, and follower of rankings, such as College Football and Basketball, it had been long ingrained in me that the most consistently good teams (or horses) should be ranked ahead of those that could pop up with one great game (or race.) Today, I find myself questioning those long standing beliefs as the best way to do it in horse racing.
The first thing that gave me cause for pause is the way that I have been voting on the weekly NTRA Top 10 poll. Frankly, the two horses I really only considered for the top spot were Game On Dude and Wise Dan, and why not? Much like the vast majority of the other NTRA voters, I can see that the pair of terrific geldings have done nothing wrong in 2013. Each is undefeated for the season with facile scores in a combined 5-for-5 of mostly grade 1 stakes races. Clearly, I am programmed to reward the clean and spotless record, rather than reward the single biggest performance.
Taking nothing away from Wise Dan, or Game On Dude, but if you asked which horse has run the best race so far in 2013, I would not hesitate in answering, Fort Larned. His Foster performance may top my list, but at 1-for-3 this season, how can I possibly rate last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner ahead of the other two, or even now injured, Point of Entry, who is also unbeaten this season, for that matter? The answer is I can’t if perfection is what we look for in American racing.
It seems to me the phrase, “done nothing wrong,” might be a faulty way of thinking. I had Fort Larned ranked number four on my current ballot, but now I have to ask myself why. All things being equal, if he lined up against my top two at the classic American conditions of 1 ¼ miles on dirt, Fort Larned would be my top pick. And after the Foster, it’s not like anyone could be worried that he is not currently in career form.
Taking this reversal of thinking one step further, perhaps this chasing of perfection is not something that should be rethought for something as ultimately meaningless as rankings, but rather as a real epidemic in racing that not only weakens our sport, but the horses as well.
Sheltering a horse from real work, and real tests, does not strengthen them. Quite the opposite, in my opinion. Imagine the football team that only plays weaker competition, and only does so in a game or two here and there. Sure they might come in with a perfect record, but when that big game finally does come, are they really mentally or physically prepared?
As current fans, we miss out on plenty of great match-ups, due to the quest for high winning percentages. Imagine for a moment if greats like Kelso or Forego were campaigned more not to lose rather than to win. In his article today, my colleague, Matt Scott, so eloquently points out that many great horses have had their racing careers defined as much in a loss as they do in a series of wins. Racing to win, rather than not to lose, seems so inherently obvious, but I fear with each passing season, racing is moving away from the obvious.
Perhaps if we were not so worried about perfection and winning percentages, we could truly see the best of horses. Forget the losses, let’s start looking at what a horse can do on their very best days. Maybe the way horses are rated internationally is a better way after all.