As I was looking at my Hall of Fame ballot, specifically the past performances for Housebuster, the two-time sprint champion from the early 1990s, I noticed that one of his 15 victories came in the 1990 King's Bishop at Saratoga. The seven-furlong test for 3-year-olds, which is now a Grade 1 race often used by the winner as a springboard into the stallion ranks, was only a Grade 3 event back then.
Fact is, for horses aged 3 and up, there were only a handful of races under a mile given Grade 1 status in 1990. That has changed dramatically in the last 25 years.
A committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association began grading the best North American races in 1973 (Canadian races now are graded separately by The Jockey Club of Canada). The committee followed in the footsteps of the European Pattern Committee, established in 1970 by racing authorities in England, Ireland, and France. Germany and Italy joined soon thereafter.
Unlike its European counterpart, which maintains a pattern that changes very little from year to year, the TOBA Graded Stakes Committee has taken a different, some might say unpredictable, path.
Let's look at some numbers.
In 1983, 10 years after the Graded Stakes Committee was formed and one year before the inaugural Breeders' Cup, there were 328 graded stakes from a total of 71,007 races (.5% of all races). Of the 328 graded stakes, 94 were rated Grade 1. Of the 94 Grade 1 races, there was just one – the Vosburgh at Belmont Park – at a distance of less than a mile for horses aged 3 and up.
Then along came the Breeders' Cup, which had all seven of its original races deemed worthy of Grade 1 status. Among those races was the six-furlong Sprint. While the Eclipse Awards, established in 1971, had always recognized North America's outstanding sprinter, the advent of the Breeders' Cup gave the category a championship race.
Other races at distances under a mile gradually got upgrades from the TOBA committee. The Bing Crosby at Del Mar, the Carter at Aqueduct, the Frank J. DeFrancis Dash at Laurel, the Forego and Vanderbilt at Saratoga, the Triple Bend at Hollywood Park, the Malibu at Santa Anita, and, yes, the King's Bishop at Saratoga, among others.
For fillies and mares, 3 and up, who had no Grade 1 opportunities in sprints within their division in 1983, the Graded Stakes Committee upgraded a number of races from coast to coast. In 2007, filly and mare sprinters even got their own Breeders' Cup race.
By 2012, there were 20 Grade 1 races under one mile in distance for horses 3 and up: 11 for males and nine restricted to fillies and mares. That's a twenty-fold increase in Grade 1 sprints in 30 years.
Those 20 sprints represent 17.4% of the 115 Grade 1 races run in North America last year. By comparison, the lone Grade 1 of 1983, the Vosburgh, represented just 1.1% of all of that year's Grade 1 races.
Incidentally, there were 490 graded stakes in 2012 from a total of 51,201 races, almost 1% of all races. That means the committee has doubled the percentage of graded stakes from all North American races over 30 years from .5% in 1983.
Stallion farms seek Grade 1 winners. Forty years ago, to be a Grade 1 winner, there was an overwhelmingly strong chance a horse had to carry his speed to at least a mile.
So what happened?
“The Graded Stakes Committee tries to evaluate the quality of a race, no matter what distance,” said horseman and former Graded Stakes Committee chairman Russell Jones, who served on the committee 12 years. “As we evaluated those races, it must have been that there were more graded stakes performers running well in sprints than in distance races.”
The committee, unlike Europe's Pattern Committee, relies on a variety of statistical data reflecting, among other things, on how many starters in a particular race had won or placed in other graded stakes. The more graded stakes there are in a division (i.e., sprinters), the more graded stakes runners there will be. It is a self-perpetuating process.
In Europe, Jones pointed out, the Pattern Committee has more of a “breed shaping” philosophy when it looks at a season's worth of races.
Perhaps by accident, the American Graded Stakes Committee is also shaping the breed. By making more sprint races Grade 1 events, it is enabling stud farms to turn more sprinters into stallions.
Can this trend be reversed? Jones pointed out that Union Rags, winner of the mile and a half Belmont Stakes that he steered to Lane's End for a stallion deal, has been extremely well received by breeders. But it's going to take more than one horse to change what's happened over 30 years.
If breeders want to see more stamina in the Thoroughbred, they should encourage TOBA's Graded Stakes Committee to take a serious look at what has transpired over the last several decades and put less of a priority on sprint speed. It's not going to be easy … but nothing about this industry ever is.
This was originally published in the Paulick Report Special, our print edition distributed at the Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale
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