View From The Eighth Pole: American Exceptionalism In The Graded Stakes Process

by | 01.06.2020 | 11:31am

In December 2018, I suggested the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee lacked common sense when it came time to assigning designations to the best races in this country. Nothing has changed in the last 12 months to convince me otherwise.

I wrote then that the committee – armed with reams of statistical material to evaluate races – was well intentioned. Despite the fact that some committee members work for racetracks with a vested interest in the outcome of the grading process, I'd say they are unbiased. The decisions they make are important and have consequences within the racing and breeding industry. They understand that.

But each December, when the succeeding year's graded stakes designations are rolled out, I get the feeling that no one on the committee sees an elephant or two wandering around the conference room.

Last year I addressed how the American Graded Stakes Committee's various members have shaped the breed over several decades by increasing the number of Grade 1 sprints for horses aged 3 and up from one in the early 1980s (the Vosburgh Stakes) to 19 in 2019. As a reminder: Grade 1 winners are the most sought after horses in the breeding shed.

(Incidentally, in a cruel twist of irony, the committee downgraded the Vosburgh to Grade 2 for 2020.)

Let me repeat that number. In the first 10 years of the Graded Stakes Committee's existence, one of 94 Grade 1 races was a sprint (under one mile) for 3-year-olds and up. In 2019, there were 19 Grade 1 races for sprinters from the 103 Grade 1 races overall. (There were also four Grade 1 races under one mile for 2-year-olds in 2019).

No one from the committee has ever explained how and why this has happened. Not that long ago, the American classic distance was a mile and a quarter. Now it's an anachronism in a world of five-furlong turf races and six-furlong Grade 1 stakes.

A second subject I wish the committee would address is the bestowment of Grade 1 status to races restricted to 3-year-olds in the second half of the year, when tradition says they can and should begin to compete against older runners.

In 2019, 17 Grade 1 races restricted to 3-year-olds were run after July 1, including three at Santa Anita just days before these horses turned 4.

How does this compare to Europe, where the Pattern race system served as the model for the Graded Stakes Committee when it was established in the early 1970s? Both programs had a similar number of graded/group races in 2019: 416 in Europe and 450 in the U.S.

There were 84 Group 1 races in Europe run in 2019: 36 in Great Britain, 28 in France, 13 in Ireland and seven in Germany. Of those, only six were run after July 1: four in July, one in August and one in September. The latter race was the St. Leger, the final leg of England's Triple Crown run at 1 ¾ miles. The St. Leger is the only Group 1 in Great Britain for 3-year-olds after the Royal Ascot meet in June.

It is not as though there is an abundance of top-class 3-year-olds in the U.S. in the second half of the year. Fields for these races often have a limited number of accomplished starters, giving horses a much easier path to the breeding shed as “elite” Grade 1 winners.

Why does American exceptionalism extend to the graded stakes program, which is, after all, designed for the benefit of owners and breeders from around the world who participate in the bloodstock business? If European 3-year-olds in search of Grade 1 status are, for the most part, required to race against older runners in the second half of the year, why are their American counterparts so coddled?

This is not meant as criticism of the individuals who serve on the American Graded Stakes Committee. They are merely caretakers of a flawed system, doing the best they can to make sense of something that lacks common sense. There, I said it again.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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