Questions of how good a race is, how good a horse is, are the essence of racing these days because the actual result of the race is no longer enough proof to answer the burning questions! I suppose it’s always been that way, too; when Quiet Little Table defeated Forego in the 1977 Suburban Handicap in receipt of a huge weight allowance, no one, not even the late Phil Johnson, trainer of Quiet Little Table, thought his horse was better than Forego that day. Context, then, is important, but the process of placing a race or a horse in context has become increasingly difficult with the continuing and rapid internationalization of the sport.
This issue—and the attendant frustrations—were recently expressed on a thoroughbred breeding group discussion on Yahoo. The moderator of the group recently posted this:
“Not that this next bit has anything to do with the current topic but one of the things I struggle with is blacktype. I have mentioned the problem before. Gr1 races in many countries just are not group 1 races. That was one of the things I did like about Dubai. Lots of countries competed there and you got a good feel for the quality around the world. Unfortunately, we get a few horses winning some races there, one earlier this year was from Turkey, and all of a sudden Turkish racing is on par with the best. It is not. The races that were won were not even blacktype .. and you will find it was a Group winner that managed to win that. Why can’t someone work out the strength of racing worldwide! One of the commentators in the US has been going on about the strength of Indian racing as if it is a leading power house .. it is improving and may become an important centre in time .. but until this year even Gr1 winners from India have been unable to win a handicap in Dubai.”
Black type is a sales catalog designation that gives weight to the most important races, descending in importance from Group/Grade 1s, 2s, 3s, to Listed and then restricted races. It’s meant as a guide for overall context. The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities publishes this information annually in it’s International Cataloguing Standards book—the bible of black type and also known as the “blue book.” In the book, countries are placed into three sections, with the “Part 1” countries consisting of the major racing regions, such as North America, Europe, Australia, South America, etc.; “Part 2” countries include Hong Kong, India, Turkey, Uruguay, Zimbabwe, etc.; and “Part 3” countries are such as Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, etc.
Only the “Part 1” countries have internationally recognized Group 1,2, and 3 races (there are a few exceptions listed in the book, such as the international races from Hong Kong, etc.); the Group races of “Part 2” countries are only accorded Listed black type status in the blue book and in sales catalogs (again, with some exceptions, such as the international races in Turkey); and no races from “Part 3” countries are recognized with international black type.
Within this existing framework—and I have questioned the reasoning why certain races do not get black type status, such as the King’s Cup in Saudi Arabia, which is frequently a matchup of Group/Graded winners from around the world—of globally rated races, there have been enough anomalous results over the years to flame a number of discussions, proving that in this day and age of international bloodstock good horses have the license to come from anywhere. Uruguay, for example, a country that moves between “Part 1” and “Part 2” status every few years it seems, is from where Invasor sprang; Ipi Tombe, winner of the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free, came out of Africa–specifically Zimbabwe; one of the best recent sprinters in Europe, Overdose, arrived in Europe “proper” after a tour of duty on the backwater tracks of Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria; a Greek horse by the name of Ialysos—yes, Greek!—won a Listed event in England in 2009; and to put an exclamation mark on the topsy-turvy nature of international form nowadays, a European Group 2 winner, Bronze Cannon, couldn’t defeat Russian horses at the President’s Cup in Moscow last July 18!
No wonder, then, that chat rooms, like the one from which I quoted above, are abuzz with discussions on international form and its relevance. The observer above, for instance, mentioned the recent Turkish winner at Meydan. The horse in question, Pan River, is a 5-year-old former Turkish Derby winner who’s improved with age (as a son of Red Bishop, a Silver Hawk horse who won the Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano at age 7, not surprising). The horse was 2nd at Veliefendi in Istanbul last fall in an international Group 2 race to European Group 2 winner Halicarnassus—a globetrotter—and when he won the handicap at Meydan this year, that Group form actually translated well, which is something the commentator didn’t mention or didn’t know. Behind Pan River that day were the following black type horses: Group 3 winner Lucky Find in 2nd; the Group 1-placed (to Mastercraftsman) Shaweel in 3rd; the Listed stakes winner Spring of Fame in 4th; and the 2007 Group 2 winner McCartney in 5th, of 11 runners. In other words, it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill handicap but a race of lower black type quality.
Ultimately, the expertise to rate races and horses around the world isn’t something that can be accomplished without putting the work into it–which includes studying form and having a feel for quality. Years ago, on a trip to Brazil, I happened to see a big chestnut colt win a race in a manner that impressed the hell out of me—and it wasn’t by the margin of victory, but the way in which he won. I told my companion at the time that “he’d win in the US and has major stakes potential written all over him.” It turned out I was right, because Sandpit—the same horse–arrived in the States later and became a multiple Grade 1 winner.
Sandpit raced in the US at a time when Brazilian horses were not as well-known here as they are now, and I was one of the first journalists at the time, as bloodstock editor of Daily Racing Form, to publicize the merits of the Brazilians and to carry the results of important races from there. Today, it’s normal for the US trades and the dailies to carry the South American stakes race results. It’s only a matter of time before we do the same for other, lesser-known countries. Context demands it.