Friday, July 8, 2011

American exceptionalism

The following article was first published in Thoroughbred Times Today on July 1, 2011.

According to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), the best racehorse on the planet right now is either the brilliant, unbeaten Australian sprinter Black Caviar or the brilliant, unbeaten English miler Frankel. And who might be the IFHA and why should we care what their rankings are, you ask?

As its name implies, the IFHA is an international organization comprised of racing organizations from more than 60 countries, including the American Jockey Club and the NTRA, that seeks to coordinate and harmonize racing rules and practices around the racing world. And we should pay attention to their rankings because the rest of the world does.

The IFHA has evolved from the organization founded by Jean Romanet and Marcel Boussac, who hosted the first international meeting among the racing authorities of France, Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting in 1961. By 1967 the first International Conference of Horseracing Authorities, also hosted in Paris by the Societe d'Encouragement (then the French racing authority headed by Romanet), attended by representatives from nine countries, including the original four. Representation expanded to 110 delegates from 50 countries by 1993, and the name of the organization was changed to the current title in 1994. The International Stud Book Committee, the International Cataloging Standards Committee, and the Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers all operate in association with the IFHA.

The World Thoroughbred Rankings list originated as the International Classification of the best horses in Great Britain, France, and Ireland in 1977. North American trained horses were first included in the rankings in '95, and Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand were added in '97 and '98. The annual rankings now include more than 650 horses worldwide, all ranked on a scale derived from the original European handicapping system, a scale of weights similar to historic American “free handicap” weights, but with a higher range of weights. Horses are given separate ratings for dirt, synthetic, and turf performances, and they are weighted according to their best performance in a single race, not overall form.

Very few American-trained horses were included in the early years, but the inauguration of the Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) and the expansion of international races around the world, including the Breeders' Cup meeting, has given international handicappers a better handle on American form. In most recent years, their opinion has not been flattering to American racing.

World Thoroughbred Rankings cover a rotating six-month period and are issued about every two months. The most current rating list on the IFHA website ( covers the period from December 1, 2010 through May 23, 2011. The first 12 horses listed, at weights ranging from 130 to 122 pounds are trained in Australia, England, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, South Africa, and France. Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are the joint highest rated American-trained horses at 121 pounds, and only six other American-trained horses—Big Drama, Gio Ponti, Astrology, Jeranimo, Sidney's Candy, and Twirling Candy—appear among the 53 horses currently rated.

As in the larger world of international affairs American racing aficionados have become accustomed to believing that American horses are the best in the world. For the 30 years from about 1968 to 1997 or thereabouts, that was, on average almost certainly true. For at least the last decade, though, as demonstrated by international race meets like the Dubai Carnival and the Breeders' Cup, it is glaringly obvious that American-trained horses are superior to the rest of the world only on dirt.

Among the 60-plus member countries of the IFHA, however, only a few South American countries like Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay race predominantly on dirt. In North America in 2010, 76% of the races were on dirt, accounting for 63% of available purse money. Great Britain, Ireland Italy, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Singapore, all with horses rated higher than any American horse on the current ratings, all race exclusively or predominantly on turf.

American exceptionalism, the idea that America is qualitatively different—in so many words, better—than other countries, may or may not still be a viable concept in political circles. In the context of Thoroughbred racing, however, the rest of the world has clearly decided that it is an outdated belief.

The sooner we recognize that and act to change negative perceptions of American racing created by race-day medication and other factors, the sooner we can begin to reimpose American exceptionalism. And the sooner we can sell more horses to them at better prices.