By Kevin Blake
The modern black-type system began to take shape in Europe in 1971 when group designators were introduced to differentiate different levels of stakes races. This system was widened to North America/Canada in 1973 and was further refined by the creation of the International Cataloguing Standards Committee in 1981 and the Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers in 1983. Barring minor refinements and further geographical expansion, the core system has stayed much the same since.
To summarise how it works, the system categorises races around the world into Group/Grade 1s, 2s, 3s and listed races (as well as qualifying non-listed stakes race in America and Canada) that are deemed to be of a high enough standard to be included in Part I of the International Cataloguing Standards. The winners of these races are listed in upper-case bold lettering in sales catalogues which stands out again the non-bold font on the page, hence the “black-type” moniker. Those that finish second and third in them earn lower-case bold lettering.
This system was a game changer at the time of its creation given that researching race records was a notably laborious task back then, particularly when it came to international racing. However, the internet has transformed how everyone in racing researches pedigrees and race records, raising the standards of information that can be sought out in every aspect of the pursuit. Yet, the black-type system has remained pretty much unchanged during this data revolution.
While the current system is adequate, there is no denying that it has shortcomings and flaws. Black-type should aspire to be an internationally-recognised seal of approval of a horse's form having reached a certain level. However, everyone knows that not all black-type is equal.
I have access to a database of every black-type race in the world that lists the average Timeform rating of the first, second and third home in the last five renewals. This database quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff in terms of what races and indeed what countries tend to overperform and underperform within each grade. The gaps between the best and worst in each category tend to be substantial, yet the black-type system considers them all to be equal.
Another shortcoming of the black-type system that is particularly relevant to British racing is that the programme book there consists of a multitude of high-class but non-black-type handicaps. These handicaps regularly offer far more prize money than most stakes races and horses that run in them will only have their handicap marks raised for being involved in the finish, whereas their mark could suffer for finishing close to higher-rated rivals in a stakes races without necessarily having gone close or earned significant prize money. This has led to a situation where a substantial number of stakes-class colts and geldings rarely contest stakes races in Britain, as valuable handicaps are a much more attractive option for them. With many of these horses being officially rated well over 100 and very much deserving of black-type, they find themselves in a blind spot of the current system.
That situation contrasts with the other end of the scale of the system whereby horses can gain black-type despite running to a lower level than should warrant such status. There are countless examples of horses sneaking into the placings in small-field or below-standard black-type races, but perhaps the best example to give to illustrate the point is an extreme one. Meohmy was a 24-race maiden that was officially rated just 46, yet she finished a well-held third in a three-runner listed race at Lingfield back in 2009. She was promptly retired to stud with her name lit up in lower-case black-type. While that is clearly an exceptional case, the scope for undeserved black-type being dished out by the current system should be clear for all to see.
All told, it surely isn't right that the cataloguing standards on which so much emphasis is placed in the world of racing and bloodstock are so basic? The sport has advanced immeasurably since the 1970s and an overhaul in this areas is long overdue. The solution is an obvious one. Rather than using a binary system based on placings in stakes races, black-type should only be given to horses that have achieved a specific level of rating.
While not every racing nation puts as much emphasis on ratings as they do in Great Britain and Ireland, they are unquestionably the best way to rank and categorise horses based on their level of form. What are the most appropriate thresholds for each age group can be debated, but in the case of 3-year-olds or older for example, only awarding lower-case black-type to those that achieved an official rating of at least 100 and upper-case Black-Type to those that reached 110 would make catalogue pages a far better guide to actual merit.
The mechanisms to process this kind of information are already in place. The majority of major racing nations already have rating-based quality-control systems that dictate what races earn and retain black-type status. As well as that, the official handicappers of the racing world already pool their data together to produce the World's Best Racehorses Rankings on 10 separate occasions each year. While it would take an expansion of these processes to include lower-rated horses, the hard part of getting all the racing nations down at the same table and operating on the same system has already been done. Expansion of that system is the natural progression of it.
Indeed, if a rating-based black-type system was adapted, there would be scope there to retrofit historical results to bring past results up to the same standard of scrutiny, as centrally-assessed international ratings have been compiled by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities for well over 20 years in most major racing nations and as far back as 1977 in Britain, Ireland and France.
While on the subject of updating outdated systems, wouldn't sales catalogues be far more useful if they carried details of each horse's peak rating and what trip that rating was achieved over? One can only imagine how many thousands of hours are spent by bloodstock professionals marking up their catalogues with this basic information or indeed paying for pre-marked catalogues from the various commercial entities that produce them. If they can be readily produced by the commercial market, why isn't there more of a push for this level of information to become standard in all catalogues?
Space may be at a premium on catalogue pages, but a peak rating and what distance it was achieved over would only take up a few characters. In many cases, this information would be far more pertinent than other details regularly listed in catalogues such as prize money earned or the names of the races won.
One suspects that the first sales company to integrate higher-quality data into their catalogues will gain a lot of kudos in the bloodstock world for doing so. Given how competitive that particular sector is, the biggest surprise is that one of them hasn't already taken the leap.
All told, there is great scope for both the black-type system and cataloguing standards to be modernised, refined and improved for the benefit of all stakeholders. The means to make the suggested changes are already there, it will just take those with the power to implement them to show the forward-looking will to do so.