How does a horse receive a Timeform rating, who created it and its significance today

Written by Andrew Reichard, one of Australia's leading pedigree analysts, and owner of Bluebloods and Stallions Annual

Timeform was first published in 1948 by Phil Bull, a Rolls-Royce driving, cigar-smoking socialist, journalist, publisher, owner-breeder, racing administrator and professional punter. Phil Bull was an eccentric genius who turned the full force of his brilliant mind to what he called “the great triviality”, namely thoroughbred racing and breeding.

He was a very successful professional gambler, his strategy being to analyse what he called the “time figures” for a particular performance, loosely analogous to what are now referred to as speed ratings or simply “ratings”.

He capitalised on being ahead of the curve by accumulating a considerable fortune.

The Timeform rating was based on a calculation of the time-value of a certain performance. This took into account the layout of the track on which it was recorded, the weather, and the prevailing track surface.

All calculations were based on the Weight-For-Age scale as developed by Admiral Rous, so were adjusted for the age of the horse and the period of the year when it was recorded.

This meant that performances of equal merit received the same figure, regardless of the age of the horse.

Phill Bull summarised this method by writing, “Put as simply as possible, the Timeform Rating of a horse is the number of pounds, which in our opinion, that horse would be entitled to receive in an average Free Handicap.”

Phil Bull, Timeform's creator | Image courtesy of Bluebloods

He decided to summarise his work in a series of books called “Best Horses”. The initial volume, “The Best Horses of 1942” contained form summaries and essays on the top 250 performers of the season, concentrating on Classic candidates and elite performers.

The Annuals were a great success and in 1948, with Phill Bull as publisher they underwent a rebirth and name change to “Timeform Annuals” to reflect the significance of the “Timefigures” recorded by each horse.

These were converted into a rating in pounds under the Imperial scale, which is the now familiar “Timeform Rating”.

More horses from Europe were included, the essays were expanded, and conformation shots of the best performers were added.

Phil Bull, never one to miss an opportunity, ensured that any half-decent colts he owned received a photo entry which could be used as a selling tool for agents seeking stallion prospects around the world.

Costs were kept under control by retaining a small A5 format, the work was black and white throughout including photos and an eye-wateringly small font, which far from being a drawback, became the hallmarks of this essential reference.

The Timeform Annuals continued to blossom, leading performers from around the world were added and a full set became the pride of many a racing aficionado’s library.

The Annuals became a vital research tool for breeders and even punters needing background information on the previous season’s top performers.

The growing appetite for quality breeding stock from Britain and Europe saw the Timeform Annual achieve record sales around the globe, until the dark clouds of the internet era started to gather at the millennium. From the year 2000 onwards there was increasing pressure on all printed publications, the thoroughbred breeding industry faring particularly poorly. Many once essential publications went the way of the dinosaurs. Sadly, the adverse conditions proved too much for the Timeform Annual, which was finally discontinued after the 2020 edition.

Phil Bull's 'The Best Horses of 1946'

The Timeform organisation, now owned by Betfair continues to distribute regular form products, but the printed Annual was no longer viable.

Nevertheless, the name “Timeform” still has tremendous cachet in the racing industry.

The long years of intelligent analysis and sheer hard work by Phil Bull and his team built a wonderful reputation for anything published or distributed under the “Timeform” heading.

The highest ever annual rating of 147 was recently awarded to the unbeaten Frankel who is now covering himself in glory as a successful stallion.

To put this rating into perspective, the last unbeaten English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky was assessed at 138.

Only 14 horses have ever been awarded an annual Timeform Rating of 140 or higher.

They include Sea Bird 145, Brigadier Gerard 144, Tudor Minstrel 144, Ribot 142, Mill Reef 141, and Dubai Millennium, Dancing Brave, Harbinger, Sea The Stars, Vaguely Noble, all rated 140.

A veritable who’s who of the breed.

Dubai Millennium Timeform rated 140

The “Timeform Rating” is a valuable tool for breeders when assessing stallions or the strength of a broodmare band, as it is a continuous scale which overcomes some of the anomalies in a discrete scale such as the Black Type or Pattern system, where seasonal or jurisdictional variance can lead to inconsistencies. A common method is to assess the number of runners by a sire, or mares in a broodmare band, which had a Timeform Rating of say 100+.

In Australia, respected form analyst and publisher Gary Crispe became Timeform’s official representative in the year 2000 and his ratings are utilised by a number of racing form publications, usually accompanied by Crispe’s own insightful analysis of feature events.

The wonderful Timeform Annuals may be a thing of the past, but “Timeform” and “Timeform Ratings” remain a byword in the industry and an extremely valuable tool in assessing thoroughbred merit.

Harry Angel; Timeform rated 132, higher than all four The Everest winners