“I think we take it as an article of faith in our society that any great ability in any given field is invariably manifested early on, that to be precocious at something is important because it’s a predictor of future success.”
The man behind those words actually believes precocity is a slipperier subject than we ordinarily think, because Malcolm Gladwell was himself something of a child prodigy, but as a runner, the top of his generation in Canada as a teenager, when he’s now known around the world as a best-selling author.
From research, and from his own experience, encompassing sport and society, Gladwell noted that there are “a surprising number who either start good and go bad or start bad and end up good.”
It spells out the danger of presumption, and the disconnection between youthful dynamism and adult achievers, between a gifted learner and a gifted doer. “Precociousness,” said Gladwell, “is sometimes just its own little discrete state.”
The transition in humans to adulthood involves a number of internal and external factors which affect the process and influence a shifting state of body and mind, principally a passage of time, something less relevant in horses, where maturity is a matter of months, but precocity is still a peculiarity, even a power, and it’s a hot topic in racing right now because of one of the most prodigiously precocious and precociously prodigious performances we’ve ever seen.
When Pinatubo scorched the Curragh turf to win the National Stakes by nine lengths last Sunday, it was, by Timeform’s reckoning, the third-best performance by a juvenile in the last 30 years, behind only Celtic Swing and Arazi and ahead of anything Frankel did in his unbeaten first season.
Pinatubo is so far ahead of his crop that these sorts of cross-generational comparisons are the only means of measurement, for context and clarity, and because it has been specialising in this for decades, using the same scale, Timeform can say it with conviction, and with calculation.
And the calculation into Pinatubo at the Curragh includes a time assessment – of a monstrous timefigure of 131 – that confirms he’s unquestionably as good as he looks, as a two-year-old. But Gladwell’s warning words of precocity sometimes being “just its own little discrete state” act as an alarm bell of sorts, increasing in volume when examining some of the other Icarusesque juveniles who flew high, seemingly too close to the sun.
Let’s look at the top ten list in full.
Top Two-Year-Old Performances: Timeform Ratings (Since 1990)
|127||TOO DARN HOT||(2018)|
Of the nine, Pinatubo aside, only two rated all that higher in later life, namely Dream Ahead, who became Champion Sprinter at three, and Frankel, who became a new byword and barometer for greatness.
Three others – Zafonic, Lady Aurelia and Too Darn Hot – managed to more or less replicate their two-year-old form, though on occasion rather than on request. All of which means that as many as four A-level A-listers ‘flunked’ in higher education, and not just any four, but the very four who all broke the big 130-barrier, prior to Pinatubo.
Celtic Swing won a French Derby, but even so it was a career short changed after the bank he’d built up at two, and the other trio were all the more like shooting stars who burnt out quickly. In their case, precociousness was indeed its own little discrete state.
In short, Pinatubo has joined an exclusive club, but, as recent history tells us, it’s actually more of a VIP section within a less-exclusive club, as opposed to a luxury departure lounge with a ticket to enduring fame.
He has produced an exceptional performance. He is established as an exceptional two-year-old. But only time will tell whether he’s an exceptional racehorse. Precociousness is not necessarily a prelude to later-life achievement: just ask Celtic Swing and Arazi.
What helps towards a successful transition are the three P’s: physique, pedigree and personnel. Physically, Pinatubo is not so small as to think he’s set and certainly not so big as to believe he has a bodily edge on his contemporaries.
And the personnel team around him is one of the best in the business, Charlie Appleby having breathed new life into Godolphin, unfair to hold Emotionless and Charming Thought against him (as high-end juveniles who didn’t transition) as both suffered from serious setbacks, and Blue Point is proof positive of transmission training to great ends; which also brings us to Shamardal.
I wrote a blog on attheraces.com post-Royal Ascot about how and why Shamardal should be considered as the stallion of the season, and the general theme of his better progeny is how they improve with age.
Blue Point, star of the show at Ascot, couldn’t have done before what he was able to do as a five-year-old, the same age that Mukhadram and Pakistan Star had their best days, while Able Friend was six when at the peak of his powers in Hong Kong.
Pinatubo has a rare power, generated by his precocity, and in theory he has all the privileges to make it his era and not just his season. But in practice that’s easier said than done, with various false dawns acting as a warning from recent history.
Pinatubo is the blockbuster of the summer. That’s why there’s so much riding on the sequel.