On the Rails
with Alan Aitken
We never claimed to be able to see through the smoke and mirrors integral to the handicapper's tasks, but one of the benefits of those odd five-pound rating allowances for northern hemisphere three-year-olds has been to show clearly where they do actually fit into the scheme of things.
It was a positive last weekend for the handicappers, who are being lampooned on the other hand for another matter we will get to later.
Last Saturday, we had former British juveniles Shanghai Pioneer and Horse Galore making themselves competitive and holding turnover after just one and two starts respectively, instead of the usual, drawn out trickle down the ratings at 99-1 in 'unsuitable races', because these two were eligible to run in Class Four off their 65 rating, less the allowance.
Over the years, the handicapping department at Sports Road has sucked rather than bitten the reality bullet and slowly downgraded the assessments of two-year-old form in Britain, Ireland and Europe.
(It's only five years ago that a horse called Aberdeen managed to start with a 75 rating off a career-best two-year-old maiden second placing. And he came in as a 90-plus replacement. That is, his international rating from the UK was supposed to have been 90, or more, before being reassessed on arrival. At 75.)
Things have improved, though not far enough as far as we can see for the races carrying some questionable black type status.
It isn't that long ago Lucky Amici arrived with a Listed juvenile win at Tipperary, for instance, plus two other minor wins and a black type third in France to earn a Hong Kong domestic rating of 90 that left him high and very dry. He's down to 45 tonight at the Valley and probably will become competitive sometime in something, but it has taken him 13 starts to get to 45 and he isn't getting any younger.
On the other hand, the handicapping department would argue these ratings from overseas - and therefore horses' starting point and even eligibility - depend very much on what the handicappers at the point of origin have to say.
Thus we have had the discussion point in the past seven days of the rejection by Hong Kong's handicappers of South African horses, like World Cup and QE II Cup runner-up, Lizard's Desire, and Irish Flame, the 91/2-length winner of the South African Derby last Saturday week, as 85-plus replacement horses. Lizards Desire had 11 starts when his importation under a replacement permit was considered this time last year, with a blistering five-length East Cape Derby demolition of horses with little form then or since being his best - in terms of 'name' races anyway, though he had shown considerable ability in a three-year-old race without a black type tag.
His rating was 93 in South Africa and we've seen plenty of much worse prospects let through the gate. Usually from Ireland, France or Britain, where the old northern hemisphere ratings bias still holds the odd alpaca goat in good stead.
For his part, Irish Flame had raced four times for a maiden win, Listed three-year-old win and a Group Three flogging when that import request was tendered. It pains us to agree but that one probably had to be rejected, at that time. And there's the rub.
The Replacement Permits were originally 90-plus international ratings but it was far too difficult to buy a horse who still had gas in the tank after being raced to that level.
So it was dropped to 85-plus, but no matter where the bar is set for Replacement Permits, the catch-22 will always be that it is tough to buy borderline but promising horses before they go on to be something, and an expensive and often disappointing exercise to buy those that qualify but have no upside. And then there are the motivations of the purchasing trainer as well, but that is a different column.
Both Lizard's Desire and Irish Flame made the type of improvement after joining Mike De Kock, which now makes it look impossible that they could have been rejected, but there is a long list of those that were in the same position, rejected and never improved.
And there are just as many that were accepted and never justified their inflated rating when they got here.