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Picture: Aquitaine (Al Mufti), pictured as a yearling, is a three-parts-sister to the multiple Grade 1 winner Captain America (Captain Al). Their dam Requista (Fort Wood) is a half-sister to twice Listed Prix du Cap winner Dacha (Russian Fox), whose Captain Al daughter Adorable is dam of Kommetdieding.


In October 2007 a horse called Acquitaine, trained by Dianne Stenger, won her maiden over 1600m on Turffontein Standside by no few than 17,5 lengths and there was a further 5,5 lengths back to the third horse while the favourite Cresta was beaten 26 lengths.

Her time was exceptional too.

The result in retrospect highlights the fact that thoroughbreds, like professional athletes, are probably able to produce a performance to match their inherent ability only once in their careers.
This in turn highlights how tough the job of the handicapper is, especially when one considers the definition of the respective entities “merit rating” and “ability”.
Handicapping guru Karel Miedema’s definition of merit rating is “A measure of ability expressed in terms of weight, showing the ability of a horse compared to that of the average horse in a population of the same age and sex.”
Miedema’s definition of ability is “Athletic ability is innate (you either have it or you don’t), and it is measurable. There are parallels in this between human track athletes and racehorses. Once the inherent level of ability has been established it cannot improve.”
In the athletic world the best example of an athlete actualising his inherent ability was provided by long jumper Bob Beamon, who in 1968 at the Mexico Olympics bettered the world long jump record by close to two feet, an achievement regarded by many as the greatest single performance in sporting history.
Chief handicapper Mike Wanklin said after Aquitaine’s performance, which came in her fourth career start, “I would defy anybody to quantify that performance. Mathematically she has run to a rating of 113. Hopefully she is that good, who knows she might even be the next Ipi Tombe. But, although we know she is decent, it would be within the realms of the ludicrous to base her Merit Rating on just one maiden win. We will rate her in the high 80’s and let her prove that she is better than that in her next start.”
In the end she was given a 93 merit rating.
One ruling that helped the handicappers was that a three-year-old winning a maiden could not at the time be rated higher than ‘D’ Division standard which quantified to a maximum of about 94.
Wanklin and his colleagues also took into account the going conditions.
“In normal circumstances one length equates to two Merit Rated points,” he said. “However, in sand races, owing to the slowness of the surface, we equate one length to only one Merit Rated point. In Aquitaine’s case we decided to treat the race as a sand race due to the soft going conditions.”
Wanklin acknowledged part of a jockey’s skill-set was to try and fox the handicapper, but believed that any jockey would have been hard-pressed to limit Aquitaine’s win to less than 10 lengths on the day had he even tried.
In the case where a jockey is looking over his shoulder and winning by, for example, three lengths, a handicapper is allowed at his discretion to penalise the horse by an extra length or two but usually by no more as it is impossible to know how much more the horse would have found.
South African racing’s statistical guru Jay August provided some fascinating data to help quantify Aquitaine’s performance.
There was only one other race over the distance that day, a Progress Plate which was won by a horse rated 96, and Aquitaine’s  time was 0,50 seconds quicker.
Her time of 98,49 seconds was the third fastest course and distance maiden time of the season behind the 98,01 seconds of Palikari, who only won one more race, and the 98,15 seconds of Smart Banker, who went on to become a Grade 1 winner.
However, as her race was run in soft going it was an exceptional speed performance.
The average rating awarded for a maiden back then was 74,1 and only three other maiden winners were given 90 or higher ratings that season.
Lubricator was awarded a 93 for his win at Clairwood, and went on to run third in the Grade 1 Daily News 2000; the ill-fated Warrior Man was awarded a 90 and went on to win his only race overseas, in Russia, by 12 lengths; and Causation was awarded a 90 and went on to win three more races and was Grade 3 placed.
There were five other horses who won maidens by ten lengths or more that season, Warrior Man, Ladonna, South Country, Ithala and Joyful Applause. Of them Ithala became a Listed winner and both Ladonna and South Country attained small black type.
August has noticed casually that most “outperformances” come in the opening months of the season and are by three-year-olds, which suggests they should be treated with caution and that is not to mention the other result-influencing factor of pace.
Aquitaine went on to win two more races, including the Grade 3 Jacaranda Handicap, but a couple of niggles prevented her from materialising into the Group 1 horse that her performance that day suggested she could become.
Dianne Stenger has fond memories of Aquitaine’s victory although her Grade 1-winner Jamaica toying with the boys in the November Handicap from a draw of 16 out of 16 and winning by 2,25 lengths is her career number one moment.
Dianne added, “What I remember most about Aquitaine’s win was Fransie (Naude) carrying on pushing her all the way to the line as he did not look over her shoulder, It was funny to watch!”