Keeneland presents American Graded Stakes Standings: How Low Can They Go?

by | 12.03.2010 | 11:43am

Everyone has seen the writing on the wall. Some tracks have closed, others are on the precipice. Many of those that remain open – even the healthy ones – are running fewer races and offering fewer race dates.

At year's end, the total number of races run in the United States will be approximately 44,000, an 11% decline from 2009. Combined with Canada and Puerto, the total number of races in North America will be right around 50,000 – the lowest number since 1968, when 49,777 races were run in those three countries, according to the Jockey Club.

The number of foals is on the decline as well. The Jockey Club projects the 2010 North American crop will be 30,000 Thoroughbred foals, the lowest number since 28,809 were born in 1976. Fewer foals obviously means fewer races can be run, and compounding the issue is the fact the average number of starts per runner has dropped precipitously, too, from about 10 in 1975 to six average starts per year per runner in 2009.

It stands to reason, then, that the number of American Graded Stakes should be on the decline as well, and it's something the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee is examining.

“There's been a fair amount of discussion among committee members in the last couple of years about that, and the general sense is we need to reduce the number,” said TOBA's Andrew Schweigardt, secretary of the committee. “There is no consensus on how big that number should be. There are differences of opinion, differences of philosophy on that. There is general agreement that the number of stakes does need to be reduced.”

TOBA released is 2011 stakes list this week, (click here for the complete list of changes) and the number has been reduced marginally from 2010, from 487 AGS races to 474. That's about 1.1% of all races run in the U.S., significantly higher than the ratio of AGS races to all races from 20 and 30 years ago, when there were between 70,000 and 80,000 races run each year.

In fact, in 1980, when there were 68,243 North American races, only 272 stakes or 0.4% were graded. (Note: The number of graded stakes then included Canada, which began to grade its own races in 1998.)

During the 1980s, the total number of races and graded stakes became bloated. An all-time high of 82,705 races were run throughout North America in 1989, and the following year, 1990, the committee graded a total of 451 stakes—an increase of 65% over 10 years.

The number has fluctuated from 451 to its all-time high of 487 in 2003 and again this year, when 487 stakes in the U.S. received graded status.

The number of 2011 stakes given a Grade 1, 2 or 3 designation is identical to the 474 graded in 2000. The major difference is there were 62,877 races run in 2000, 30% more than there will be this year.

Would a 30% decline in American Graded Stakes be appropriate?  That would mean only about 330 AGS races, a steep drop. As Schweigardt said, the committee hasn't arrived at a consensus yet as to what the proper number should be. It seems obvious that 474 is too high.

Schweigardt acknowledged some divisions – particularly the 3-year-old filly and older filly and mare divisions going long on dirt – are plagued with short fields. In addition, he said, those divisions are top heavy, with more G1 and G2 races than there are G3. The committee uses a pyramid for a guideline, the ideal situation being 20% of all AGS races getting G1 status, 30% G2, and 50% G3.

  • David

    Does it really matter? The measure, when used as criteria in breeding and auction, is properly discounted for dilution, isn’t it? It seems to mean more to the mid-range to smaller tracks heretofore ignored by the aristocracy that now leverage “found” money to compete with traditional fixtures. To the player, graded status per se fails to attract the attention it used to and a full conditioned allowance will outpace a 6-horse grade II every time. The ying and yang of it is convention says more grades the better but recent results wouldn’t seem to support the premise anymore. Stands to reason a contracting industry would adjust its critical benchmarks accordingly. But, that aristocracy is still out there, huh?

  • Dave

    They should not pick on smaller tracks trying hard to make it. Some of those Gr I Keeneland races on poly look like Gr III. Lone Star Derby should have been left alone. Winner ran 4th in Belmont. You can’t let Sheet guy tell you what races are worthy.

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