On the Rails
with Alan Aitken
From a strictly Hong Kong point of view, Sacred Kingdom's mild demotion to third-ranked sprinter behind Black Caviar was probably the main point of the international classification figures released last week, albeit a very much expected one.
And Sunday's Centenary Sprint Cup win did nothing but back up the view that the great sprinter is feeling the effects of age, in particular over the final stages of his races, where he is either running out of steam or looking after himself in a way that a younger star does not.
In fact, the classifications could be seen as being somewhat kinder to Sacred Kingdom in his autumn than ever they were at the peak of his summer.
To compare the 121-rated Sacred Kingdom of the current moment to the marauding four-year-old, who mostly bashed whatever he met and was given a 123 rating for it, seems a trifle out of whack, frankly. As does comparing the 121-rated Sacred Kingdom, who battled away to hold a diminishing three-quarter length margin over a good, purposeful but hardly stunning sprinter like Dim Sum, to the 123 peak that Silent Witness held at the height of his powers.
And so we arrive at the glass ceiling.
In the wider list of international ratings, there appears freedom to just think of a number for the leading horse over more classical distances, with Harbinger on 135 in this edition and Sea The Stars on 136 in the 2009 list.
Part of that issue lies in the winning margins. Over a distance it is more likely that a winner can put up a margin like the 11-length victory Harbinger posted in the King George at Royal Ascot. Inherent to the nature of them, short-course races are generally won by more conventional margins, even when the win is just as dominant and handicappers are great admirers of beaten margins.
Part of the issue also lies in the improvement in the European attitude to the world of turf sprints. The deeds of horses from Australia and Hong Kong in particular have squashed any view that sprint horses from the Asia-Pacific jurisdictions are somehow inferior to those from Europe - an idea that would have seemed very foreign to the compilers of the classifications pre-Choisir.
But as that view has shifted, in the face of continuing evidence that sprint horses from this part of the world may be better than their European counterparts, it has also left the classifications panel with a history which has painted it into a corner.
While there were plenty of reasons to believe that Ortensia's close-up fifth in the Hong Kong Sprint was a considerably better athletic performance from her than when flogged by Black Caviar at Flemington the start prior in Melbourne, that difference in margins will have had a good deal to do with ensuring Black Caviar's ascent to the top of the world on 123, yet that evidence could have led to a higher rating still.
The problem now is that the 123 rating has become the accepted best for sprinters from this part of the world. What sprinter is going to come along somewhere who could rightfully be considered superior to Black Caviar, Sacred Kingdom or Silent Witness?
For our money, any of the three at his or her best is a decidedly better sprinter than Choisir or Starspangledbanner, whose Ascot feats earned each of them 121 ratings.
Even the tacit acknowledgment that the competition is at least as good away from Europe has set the bar to go beyond 123 at a very difficult place historically, while the next good European sprinter still has higher classifications of the pre-Choisir days on which to draw comparison.
Black Caviar's trainer, Peter Moody, has played down the prospects of his unbeaten mare making the trek from the Antipodes to Ascot this year. She might have been the one to break the glass ceiling, but that task may fall to 'forgotten' Australian star Hay List, whose connections are still reportedly looking at Ascot as an option. But then you get the silly 'Choisir clarification' - he improved with the trip - to justify any higher mark.
So the pro-European bias still stands quietly waiting for its opportunity and we still have the apparent need for sprinters to do something clever in Britain to be properly recognised.