Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake dissects some global racing numbers to see which nations punch above, or below, their weight in world racing.

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The world seems to be getting smaller every year and it is no different in horse racing. International campaigning and horses being sold between different jurisdictions gives us more opportunity than ever to assess the relative merits of horses bred and trained in different parts of the world. While this has tended to blur the borders that separate racing nations, there is still more than enough human, equine and environmental variety amongst those nations to make it interesting to assess their individual merits relative to the rest.

The first step in evaluating the performance of each country is to establish the size of the racing and breeding industries in each nation. The Annual Reports produced by the International Federation of Horseracing Nations are the source of this information and with their last available report being from 2016, this is the period that the following data is drawn from. The list is made up of the eight most prolific breeders of thoroughbreds in the world as well as Hong Kong, which has been added for reasons that will soon become clear:

2016FoalsFlat racesIndividual runners
Hong Kong08061275

Before delving into the performance of these racing nations, there are a number of facts that jump off the page in the above table.

Firstly, the sheer scale of the racing industries in the likes of America, Australia and Japan in comparison to those in Europe is staggering. Secondly, it is remarkable just how much of an outlier Ireland is with regard to the size of its breeding industry relative to its racing industry. It is the third biggest producer of foals in the world (albeit approximately 30% of those foals are bred for National Hunt racing) but stages a tiny number of Flat races relative to the other leading players in world racing.

This emphasises the export-driven nature of the Irish breeding industry, with a significant proportion of Irish-bred horses being sold to race abroad. Finally, Hong Kong is an exception amongst all the other major racing nations in that it doesn’t have a breeding industry of its own and thus is completely reliant on imports.

Now that the relative sizes of the racing and breeding industries of the world’s major racing nations have been established, we can move onto how horses trained in each country performed on the racecourse in a worldwide context. The World’s Best Racehorse Rankings give us a balanced appraisal of the relative merits of horses trained around the world and represent the fairest way to answer the question of which racing nations punch above and below their weight in world racing.

Given that the very best horses in the world are a small group that will always be vulnerable to sample size issues, data from 2015, 2016 and 2017 has been individually assessed and included in an effort to give a fair reflection of the performance of each country.

The number of Group/Grade 1 Flat races in each county is listed alongside how many horses rated 115 or higher were trained in each country as well as how many of those reached a rating of 120 or higher. The countries are listed in order of the number of individual horses that raced in that country in the year in question as was established in the previous table.

The number of individual runners in each country in 2017 is not yet available as the annual report for that year has not yet been published by the IFHN, but the previous year’s statistics give a strong guide to what they are likely to be.

2015Individual RunnersNumber of G1 RacesNumber of 115+% of 115+ Per RunnerNumber of 120+% of 120+ Per Runner
Hong Kong130610231.761%50.382%
2016Individual RunnersNumber of G1 RacesNumber of 115+% of 115+ Per RunnerNumber of 120+% of 120+ Per Runner
Hong Kong127511262.039%20.157%
2017Number of G1 RacesNumber of 115+Number of 120+
Hong Kong11221

There are any number of talking points raised by this data.

On the positive side, this data illustrates why Hong Kong has been included. Despite it being as recently as 1998 that Johan Cruyff became their first representative in the international rankings (now the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings), they have grown into a genuine world power in horse racing.

For them to have achieved that in such a short space of time is quite simply remarkable. The recent completion of a state-of-the-art training facility in Conghua in China will allow for an increase in the number of horses that can be trained to race in Hong Kong going forward and this is only likely to lead to them making an even bigger impact in world racing in the years ahead.

Irish racing can also hold its head high based on this data. Despite staging by far the smallest number of Flat races amongst the major thoroughbred breeding nations, it more than holds its own in terms of how many world-class horses are trained there. Of course, much of this can be attributed to the exploits of Aidan O’Brien, but horses trained by other Irish trainers regularly appear in the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings. These numbers very much support the view that Irish Flat racing is amongst the most competitive in the world. 

On the negative side, it is clear that bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to top-level performances of horses trained in America and Australia. Despite having substantially greater numbers of horses and races than every other racing nation, they have not produced top-class performers at anything like the rate that would be expected.

Australia in particular stands out in this regard. For a racing nation that has so much going for it in terms of a financial structure that allows it to deliver excellent prize money and levels of participation in ownership that are the envy of much of the racing world, the rate at which they produce world-class horses is remarkably low. For a nation that has a reputation for producing some of the best sprinters in the world as well as importing an array of proven middle-distance and staying talent from Europe, it really is puzzling just how poorly they fare out on these numbers.

Indeed, it is worth considering that Australia stages approximately 50% more races and a very similar number of Group 1 races as Great Britain, France and Ireland combined. Yet, in the three years covered by the above data they only produced 40, 50 and 55 horses rated 115 or higher compared to 90, 80 and 93 such performers produced by those three European nations combined.

The picture gets even worse when this analysis is elevated to the very highest level of 120 and higher performers, with Australia producing just five, four and nine such horses in those years compared to the 24, 20 and 23 produced by those three European nations.

Trying to evaluate why this situation has come about is certainly not straightforward. However, one factor that is worth discussing is that Group races in all European nations are constantly scrutinised and quality controlled by the centralised European Pattern Committee. Given the above statistics, one can't help but question whether the Australian Pattern is subject to nearly as much objective scrutiny.

When one studies the above data, it is difficult not to think that if the Australian Pattern programme was subject to such scrutiny, there would be significantly less Group 1 races run there. It would perhaps be in the best interests of Australian racing to self-examine in this regard, as such dilution of the Pattern only serves to devalue Australian Group 1 races on the international stage, but a more pressing issue is assessing why they are not producing more world-class horses given the size and financial health of their racing industry.

Kevin Blake
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