By Andrew Hawkins
Who has been the world’s best racehorse in 2019?
When the year’s LONGINES World’s Best Racehorse Rankings are announced in London next month, it appears likely that Crystal Ocean, Enable and Waldgeist will share the crown.
Leaving aside the fact the rankings are erroneously named – they recognise the best individual performance in a calendar year, not the best horse over that timeframe – it is also likely that, unless an unparallelled performance occurs this weekend, the horse that should be challenging for front-running honours will instead sit outside the top 10.
That horse is Japanese wonder filly Almond Eye, who is currently equal 11th on a rating of 124 – four pounds astern of the top group.
On face value, that seems absurd, even if the four-year-old has only produced one performance to back up her Triple Tiara three-year-old season in 2018.
Almond Eye’s first two runs this year were good, but not breathtaking. Her win in March’s G1 Dubai Turf (1,800m) at Meydan was solid, with the form franked by subsequent G1 winners Lord Glitters and Deirdre, and given her noted travel issues, it was probably better than it appeared. Her third to Indy Champ in the G1 Yasuda Kinen (1,600m) was good under the circumstances, but it was still a defeat.
On the strength of those performances, it is understandable that she wasn’t on the board, for those efforts were a far cry from her smashing Japan Cup victory in 2018 (for which she also earned a 124 rating).
However, the fact that she now sits outside the top 10 after producing arguably the performance of the year to win the G1 Tenno Sho Autumn (2,000m) last start is astonishing.
To the eye, on times, in the form book, it was a scintillating effort. It was the second fastest Tenno Sho Autumn win of all time (only Tosen Jordan in 2011 went faster, by just a tenth of a second), and Almond Eye was eased right down over the concluding stages. In behind her were nine previous Group 1 winners, some statistic particularly in Japan where there aren’t that many top-level features in the first place.
The form has been franked through the Japan Cup, where Tenno Sho seventh Suave Richard took top prize and four of the first five home graduated from an Almond Eye defeat, and the Hong Kong Cup, where Win Bright – fresh off an eighth in the Tenno Sho – held off Ireland’s Magic Wand to provide global context to that form.
When all of these factors are considered, a mere 124 seems wide of the mark.
Looking at those individual perfomances ranked higher, it’s hard to argue with many in the top 10.
Perhaps Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso is a shade too high on 126, but a case could be made for that figure too. However, there is one inclusion ahead of Almond Eye that is simply baffling.
In what world does Benbatl’s G2 Joel Stakes win earn him a spot above Almond Eye? Seriously?
There’s no doubting he was impressive winning by five lengths over King Of Comedy, coming off a fourth in the G1 Juddmonte International, and Zaaki. That’s not up for debate. However, a G2 win over a moderate field rating higher than a genuine G1 contest? The performances simply aren’t in the same ballpark; perhaps the greatest similarity is that both Benbatl and Almond Eye are winners of the Dubai Turf.
So why is it that Almond Eye has not received the plaudits from the handicappers that she’s earned from much of the racing world?
Japan has a history of being underrated in these ratings. Unlike many other racing jurisdictions, who hold up the LONGINES World’s Best Racehorse Rankings as a pointer to their position on the world stage, the Japanese handicappers are less likely to fight for global recognition and will simply defer to the views of their international colleagues.
When the handicappers from each jurisdiction come together in Hong Kong at the end of each year to determine the final rankings that are announced the following January, the meeting – so participants say – can get quite heated and ferocious.
That is not the Japanese way.
In the past decade, seven Japanese horses have received a higher figure than Almond Eye – Just A Way (130), Epiphaneia, Orfevre (both 129), Lord Kanaloa (128), A Shin Hikari, Maurice and Nakayama Festa (all 127). Intriguingly, all bar two of these earned their peak figure abroad.
Epiphaneia and Orfevre earned their best marks at home in the 2014 Japan Cup and the 2013 Arima Kinen respectively, both having been beaten on foreign shores.
With Epiphaneia, it is perhaps most surprising that he achieved anywhere near a 129 rating – until the form from his Japan Cup win is dissected and the context immediately becomes clear. To justify the big rating given to Just A Way for his Dubai Duty Free win that year, Epiphaneia needed to be rated somewhere in his vicinity. Just A Way hadn’t run poorly in that Japan Cup, but he was clearly second best, four lengths behind Epiphaneia. Take into consideration that the year’s Sheema Classic winner Gentildonna also ran well enough to suggest that she’d run close enough to form and Epiphaneia simply had to achieve that figure. It was global politics at play that saw Epiphaneia reach those heights, rather than arguments from the Japanese handicappers.
It was global politics at play that saw Epiphaneia reach those heights, rather than arguments from the Japanese handicappers.
As for Orfevre, his Arima Kinen victory was extraordinary as he raced away for an eight-length success at his final start. It was a career-best effort and, if weights and measures truly came into play in the LONGINES World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, it should have made him number one in 2013. However, having been comprehensively beaten by Treve in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe the start before – even giving her 11 pounds – it was deemed that he should sit in behind the French filly, who shared the honours with Black Caviar that year.
Which brings us to Sunday’s Arima Kinen, the biggest betting race in the world annually and one of two all-star races in Japan each year.
Almost 1.6 million fans cast their ballots to determine the final field for the 2,500m contest, with Almond Eye topping the poll ahead of Cox Plate winner Lys Gracieux, who won the other all-star event, the Takarazuka Kinen, in June.
Also set to take their chance against the freakish filly in the Arima Kinen are Japan Cup victor Suave Richard, G1-winning three-year-olds Saturnalia and World Premiere and a swathe of other gallopers with a G1 triumph to their name: Fierement, Rey De Oro, Aerolithe, Kiseki, Cheval Grand and Al Ain.
Even with the absence of Glory Vase, Lucky Lilac, Deirdre and Win Bright – those four having travelled to Hong Kong – as well as last year’s winner Blast Onepiece and G1 victors Roger Barows, Loves Only You, Wagnerian and Chrono Genesis, it is still a tremendously deep line-up.
If a field with this sort of depth lined up anywhere else in the world, you’d expect the winner to be vying for top spot in the ranking. Alas, the lack of foreign participation renders it almost meaningless from a ratings perspective. Even if she wins by 10 lengths in track-record time, it’s unlikely that will be enough to catapult her to the top of the standings. In fact, it remains wholly possible she will continue to sit outside the top 10.
While the handicappers may be missing the mark, with the likes of A Shin Hikari and Nakayama Festa ahead of Almond Eye historically, the racing public both in Japan and abroad is well aware that it is witnessing a champion, a once-in-a-generation performer.