Blue Grass, Wood Memorial Downgraded; Pennsylvania Derby To Be Grade 1 in 2017

by | 12.01.2016 | 2:50pm
Connect wins the 2016 Pennsylvania Derby over Gun Runner. Both horses came back to beat older runners in Grade 1 races last week.

Two historic races for 3-year-olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby – the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct – will be dropped from Grade 1 to Grade 2 status when the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee announces its 2017 list of American Graded Stakes on Friday, the Paulick Report has learned.

Expected to be elevated to Grade 1 status for the first time is the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.

An important Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies, the Mother Goose at Belmont Park, is also expected to be downgraded to Grade 2 status when the list of 2017 graded races is released.

This would be the second time since the creation of the grading system in North America in 1973 that the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial were downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2.

The Blue Grass, which traditionally had been run on a Thursday, 10 days before the Kentucky Derby, saw increasingly weak fields in the late 1980s and was downgraded to Grade 2 in 1990. Its position on the calendar was pushed back to two weeks before the Derby, then three and now four weeks before the first Saturday in May. Its Grade 1 standing was reinstated in 1998.

The Wood Memorial lost its Grade 1 status in 1995. As horsemen gave their runners more time between races, it, too, was placed earlier on the racing calendar from its traditional spot two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Grade 1 status was reinstated to the Wood in 2002.

Fields for the Wood and Blue Grass have not been very productive over the last five runnings, the timeline examined by the American Graded Stakes Committee. Committee members look at several factors, including the number and level of graded stakes wins by a race's participants during their entire careers.

The racing calendar may come into play as prep races for 3-year-old males are evaluated by the committee. Over a three-week span in April 2016, five Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds were run: the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park, Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial. That means the best of the 3-year-old division is spread out among those five races.

After the Grade 1 Triple Crown's Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are run, there have been two additional two-turn Grade 1 races  on dirt for 3-year-old males: the Haskell at Monmouth Park in late July and the Travers at Saratoga in late August. It is possible for 3-year-olds to contest both of those races, along with the Pennsylvania Derby, which has been a Grade 2 race run in late September. Because they are not competing with other races (as the Derby preps do), those three races often come up stronger on the statistical evaluations done by the American Graded Stakes Committee.

The upgrading of the Pennsylvania Derby was not unexpected. Its recent fields have improved significantly and this year's running featured Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and Preakness winner Exaggerator. When this year's Pennsylvania Derby winner, Connect, came back to win the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct vs. older runners and runner-up Gun Runner did the same in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, its ascension to Grade 1 seemed almost a certainty.

The purpose of the American Graded Stakes program, whose committee members include racing secretaries, owners and breeders, is, in its own words, to “provide owners and breeders of Thoroughbred horses a reliable guide to the relative quality of Thoroughbred bloodstock by identifying those U.S. races whose recent renewals have consistently attracted the highest quality competition.”

The full list of changes for 2017 can be viewed here. The committee met in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday to evaluate all eligible American stakes races.

Dr. J. David  Richardson is chairman of the American Graded Stakes Committee. Other committee members are Barbara Banke, Reynolds Bell Jr., Craig Bernick, Everett Dobson, and J. Michael O'Farrell representing the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association; and racing officials Georganne Hale of the Maryland Jockey Club, Rick Hammerle of Santa Anita Park, Ben Huffman of Churchill Downs and Keeneland, Martin Panza of the New York Racing Association, and Tom Robbins of Del Mar.

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