By David Morgan
Hong Kong’s Happy Valley meeting was a run-of-the-mill affair on Wednesday night, all except for one eye-popping dash that had some quarters buzzing and social media cracking out ‘wow’ emojis as if Elon Musk was moonward bound in a winged Tesla with Red Adair for company.
Stock Legend’s gradual last-to-first drive, having missed the kick by several lengths, was one to put a smile on all but the sourest face. But the breathless superlatives flying around and the scale of coverage about a horse breaking its maiden at the 11th attempt in Class 4, carrying a light burden, and doing it all in a moderate time, were a tad overdone.
Context is essential when weighing up the merits of sporting performance and in the current age of social media-driven ‘look at me’ hype, hype and more hype, the consumer – hitherto known as a sports fan – is bombarded with so much over-egging that a sow’s ear can nowadays be marketed successfully as a silk purse.
😲 🤯 Think you've seen it all!?
Then watch @Vincenthocy win aboard STOCK LEGEND…
— Hong Kong Racing (@HongKong_Racing) October 7, 2020
In the heat of a thrilling visual, such as Stock Legend provided to light up an otherwise mediocre eight-race offering, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s on-course commentators, official Tweeters and Instagrammers at least can be forgiven for downplaying context: their remit is to draw eyes to the product, after all.
One wider issue it raises though is the notion that ‘good’ is no longer good enough. Things have to be marketed as brilliant, fantastic, exceptional, impressive, the world leader, or whatever catches the eye; and the problem with this is the potential for a sort of desensitised apathy as fans are bludgeoned once too often with buzz words, or worse still, become disoriented within the smoke and mirrors of it all and lose sight of what excellence really looks like.
Take the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, a silken contest year on year, a race that has unfailingly, decade after decade, held its high status among the best of the world’s elite contests: Europe’s middle-distance championship race, we’re told. Well, not this year.
In a rare scenario, the 2020 ‘Arc’ had to rely on reputation rather than the quality of its offering. Sottsass’s victory was deserved, full of merit, and not at all out of place – he is, after all, a G1 Prix du Jockey Club hero – yet it was not the star dusted heart-warmer most folks desired, what with Enable’s failure to deliver that fairy tale third win in the race. The line-up – the great mare aside – was no more than ordinary anyway once impressive Oaks heroine Love was taken out, and when a feed contamination forced Aidan O’Brien to withdraw his four remaining candidates, including shock Derby winner Serpentine, the depth of quality just wasn’t what we have come to expect of the ‘Arc’.
And yet, when the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) issued its world rankings four days later, Sottsass had posted a rating of 123 and climbed to a world top 10 position, having been rated sub-120 in the prior list published on 6 September.
That 123 ‘Arc’ rating is questionable, and the argument could be made that the horse has been rewarded for the race’s reputation rather than its actual merit on the day. After all, besides Love there was no Ghaiyyath in the entries, the 130-rated world leader and high summer king of Europe’s middle-distance division, nor Magical, the cast iron mare who outmanoeuvred him in the G1 Irish Champion Stakes, in which Sottsass was back in fourth.
Furthermore, when it came to the actual running of the ‘Arc’, heavy ground and a slow tempo meant that Sottsass passed the post in the slowest time since Ivanjica in 1976, a full 8.80 seconds slower than standard, slower even than the time the 33/1 outsider Solemia clocked when denying Japan’s wayward superstar Orfevre on a bog-like track back in 2012. Was that really Sottsass’ equal-best performance?
In fairness to the handicappers, Sottsass was given the lowest winning rating since Solemia’s 122, but should it have been lower still? One day prior, Swiss Skydiver ran to a rating of 122 according to the IFHA’s numbers men, when out battling the strapping G1 Kentucky Derby hero Authentic (124) to become only the sixth female winner in 145 runnings of the G1 Preakness. The race was restricted to three-year-olds but the fact that the pair pulled almost 10 lengths clear and ran home in a time second only to the great Secretariat’s race record, suggests the performance may have held appreciably greater merit than Sottsass’ win.
But if the Americans have been short-changed relative to the ‘Arc’ winner, how about the Japanese? The accusation has been quietly flying around for years that Japan’s impressive gallopers are too often under-rated in the IFHA rankings, which are increasingly positioned as the numbers that really count.
The accusers have a point. If any horse was hard done by out of last weekend’s Group 1 races it surely was Gran Alegria, winner of the G1 Oka Sho (1,000 Guineas) in 2019. On Sunday, the Deep Impact filly followed up her victory over none other than Almond Eye in June’s G1 Yasuda Kinen (1600m) with a genuinely jaw-dropping G1 Sprinters Stakes win over six furlongs that took her career tally to six wins from nine starts.
Not only did her deep-closing run at Nakayama fail to lift her rating anywhere close to Sottsass’ pedestrian Longchamp victory, but also the following days saw our Class 4 friend Stock Legend steal a portion of her “Stunning!” come-from-behind thunder on social media.
Ratings will never be a perfect gauge of a horse’s ability, the handicappers themselves would admit that, and it is eternally true that serious racing folk should only ever use them as one of several measures to assess a horse’s merits. But they are important, they determine a world champion of sorts, crowned at a glittering awards event, so when the perception is that some races in certain jurisdictions rate more generously than others, the situation is unsatisfactory.
Perhaps it is time for the IFHA to look at including experienced ratings experts from independent organisations such as Timeform to bring a fresh, unfettered perspective from outside of racing’s ring of official administrators.
Whether that would be feasible or not, the time certainly is overdue for the prowess of Japanese gallopers to be more accurately acknowledged and respected, just as much as it is time for media players to remember context before firing off misplaced superlatives.