Grade 1 Sprints Have Shaped the Breed

by | 03.25.2013 | 9:16am
Amazombie wins 2011 BC Sprint

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

  • Nomoralcompass

    In America it is about making big bucks no matter what the damage done to the breed. Like the 2 year olds in training sales that everyone professes to hate, no one has the courage to do anything about it. What will change is, that whatever export market currently exists for American horses, will eventually dry up and disappear. American breeders will be selling more of the quasi quarter horse the breed is destined to become to fewer and fewer buyers. A horse unable to overcome its genetic bias towards speed; bleeding like a stuck pig without its drugs; slower over a mile than the arrival of spring.

  • voiceofreason

    reap what ye sew.

  • Symbol

    Could this be why so many of our grade one winning stallions flop at stud, because we have so many graded races that there are an over abundance of these stallions and they don’t all get the chance to succeed by getting the black type mares? Its sad to see so many of our great racehorses sold overseas to stand.

  • Gambling Granny

    Another thoughtful article.

  • tft

    Same goes with Juvenile Races. Why are there so many graded stakes for Juveniles? Why are there so many Grade 1 Juvenile Races? The correlation between success at 2 and success at large is slim at best.

    • That is incorrect. There are a number of studies that show across a population that racing at two is correlated to racing sounder as an older horse and racing successfully at two is correlated to racing successfully as an older horse. It is a fashionable misnomer to suggest that racing at two is the cause of ills within the breed.

    • Slickeeboy

      There are actually far fewer Grade 1 juvenile races now than in the 1980s. At one time, the Sapling, Hopeful, Arlington-Washington Futurity, Futurity, Cowdin, Champagne, Norfolk, Laurel Futurity, Young American, Breeders Cup Juvenile, Remsen and Hollywood Futurity were Grade 1 races during the same season. Those were just the races for the colts.

  • Tinky

    “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.”

    Chicken? Egg? Hello??

  • This seems quite logical, an result for the made decisions.

  • jttf

    california and new york have way to many grade 1 races. many of their races only require a purse of $250,000. i dont think there are any grade 1 races for 3 year old turf horses in the first 6 months of the year. there should also be a grade 1 kentucky oaks prep for 3 year old fillies in the midwest or east coast for dirt horses. since the year 2000, when it comes to breeders cup sprint winners. only 3 winners have used lasix more than twice at the age of two. 7 b.c. sprint winners did not use lasix at 2. 7 out 13 races says dont use lasix at 2.

    • Kris

      California and New York have so many Grade 1 races because that’s where most of the grade 1 winners are based. It really is that simple.

      • jttf

        why would anyone think that new york and california breds win the most grade 1 races ?

  • Hell of a point here again Ray…They need to breed more Geldings!!!…In other words start whacking more colts…There are way to many stallions in the U.S.A….

    • Actually there is too few. The selection of stallions is way too harsh and way to soft on mares. We should be giving stallions that have won at G2 level and below more of a shot at stud than we currently do. Right now there is a real chance that the next Mr Prospector, Dynaformer, Distorted Humor, or more importantly Danzig, Red Ransom, Malibu Moon or the like will never get an opportunity at stud because they failed to win at G1 level.

  • Glimmerglass

    Just look at the test of a champion Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) : from 1921 until 1975 it was at 2-miles and then dropped to 1 1/2 miles from 1976 through 1989. In today’s jaundiced eye that’s a marathon race or as steeplechasers like to say just a warmup.

    Since 1990 it’s at 1 1/4 mile distance, but I’m sure some owners would love to nibble that down lower. Maybe in 2013 someone can sue saying the distance is unfair to their horse.

  • Concerned Observer

    Thanks for sharing. I have doubts that some of our leaders ever consider the long term consequences of their short term decisions.

  • FourCats

    Good article. But the reason that there is a heavy priority on breeding sprinters now is because of the very poor economics of owning a race horse and not because TOBA has upgraded sprint stakes. TOBA has just responded to the industry as it has become.
    Since owning a race horse is a heavy money loser 80-90% of the time, prospective buyers look for horses that can return some purses quickly. The longer someone owns a horse, the more money they lose. So, people buy horses that can excel as 2 year olds. That means precocious, speed-oriented types. And since those are the kind of horses that people buy, that encourages breeders to breed those types. Horses whose pedigrees indicate that they will do better with age and distance bring low prices at the sales. If not for the Triple Crown, horses with distance pedigrees would bring no money at all (except for foreign buyers).
    Then, with the horse population dominated by sprinters, the tracks card more and more sprint races and fewer and fewer distance races so that their races fill. This then exacerbates the problem.
    If you believe that this a problem (as I do), how do you fix it? There is really only one way. The economics of owning a race horse has to improve to the point where there is a reasonable chance of breaking even. That means bringing in more purse money which can really only be done by increasing the number of customers. (Slots have increased purse money where they exist but slots are not now and never will be a long-term answer to this problem. Everyone knows, or should know, that slot money will eventually disappear [think Ontario]).

    • RayPaulick

      Good analysis. But owning horses has never been (or should never be) looked upon as a way to make money in the traditional business sense.

      • Well some body is making some money or “The Game” wouldn’t exist…Its seems to me its as traditional as any other business on the planet…It damn sure has plenty of Bernie Made Offs!!!…ty…

        • Matt Clarke

          Horse racing is a business for trainers, breeders, pinhookers, vets, farriers et al, but for owners it was always conceived as a sporting activity. This sport is now in serious trouble because owners have been sold the idea that they can make money from it. Until this ridiculous notion is done away with, our industry as horsemen will continue to languish.

  • I would like to thank Matt Clarke for his response to my comment below…As sure as the Sun will come up in the East tomorrow morning the powers that be in “The Game” are in for one Hell of a Rude Awakening in the Very Near Future…Stay Tuned as “The Greatest Game”/”National Treasure” on the Planet is about to see nothing but Sunny Days which it Damn Sure Deserves!!!…Long Live The King!!!…Baby!!!…ty…

  • Most Blogs have some sort of order…Most recent first or just the reverse…No order here…PR people stick em where they want em…I guess when its your show???…Well you folks know the rest of that story…ty…

  • Breeders tend to breed within the framework of selection (i.e distribution of prize money and prestige of races). You change that, and over a few decades you fundamentally change the breeding population. It is hard to know where the trend started but I would suggest that it came about by the influence of the “quarter horse trainers”, combined with the “speed handicappers” in the early 1970s who really started to influence the way races in North America were run and won. Horses that got to the front and were able to stay there were selected for and the easiest type to select for was the “tall quarter horse” – long legs and lots of muscle – which is what the likes of Lukas, Baffert, etc did for some time with considerable success. The commercial breeder , rewarded in the sales ring, started breeding towards that type which saw a higher selection of type II muscle fibers (Sprint) and a lower selection on type I (Distance). Other trainers and agents followed suit.

    You also have to be mindful that of the traits of the thoroughbred sprinting is the least complex and the more highly heritable making it a simpler target of selection. Route/Distance running is significantly less heritable (which is why A.P Indy is a rare stallion and most stallions that wanted a route of ground fail at stud) and harder to predict making it a much harder target of selection.

    • As an addition to this comment it is worth noting that since Sunday Silence (1989) and Unbridled (1990) there has not been a Kentucky Derby winner that you could name as truly successful at stud for the opportunity they have been given. In the same time period the winners of the King’s Bishop Stakes have been more successful with less opportunity.

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram