I have no doubt that the men and women who serve on the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's American Graded Stakes Committee are well intentioned. They want to be fair and consistent in assessing the relative quality of stakes races run each year before assigning Grade 1, Grade 2 or Grade 3 designations that ultimately serve breeders and horse buyers at public auction.
The late Kent Hollingsworth, the insightful editor of Blood-Horse magazine, said it best in 1974 when TOBA first began grading North American stakes.
“Why bother?” Hollingsworth wrote. “Why try to remember which race is better than, or inferior to, another?”
Then, as he was wont to do, Hollingworth answered his own question.
“Because to improve the breed,” he said, “to upgrade a broodmare band, to select a stallion, to understand a catalogue page, to evaluate a family – one must be able to recognize racing class.”
Hollingsworth would have a hard time recognizing the end result of the Graded Stakes Committee's work today. It would be difficult to argue that the committee is improving the breed – unless turning Thoroughbreds into sprinters is considered an improvement.
For the first 10 years of the Graded Stakes Committee's existence, there was one Grade 1 race for 3-year-olds and up at less than one mile in distance: the Vosburgh at Belmont Park in New York. One out of 94 Grade 1 races – 1 percent – was a sprint.
For 2019, there will be 19 Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds or older horses at less than one mile in distance – 17 on dirt and two on turf. Nineteen out of 103 Grade 1 races – 18 percent – will be sprints.
(In addition, there are four Grade 1 races at less than one mile for 2-year-olds.)
How did this happen?
If I may answer my own question, it's the illogical, self-perpetuating system the committee relies upon to evaluate stakes races
Members are provided reams of statistical information on starters in unrestricted stakes races with minimum purses. The more graded stakes winners in a field, the higher rating that particular race gets. When the Graded Stakes Committee increases the number of graded races for a specific division – in this case, sprints – you increase the likelihood that subsequent sprint races will be highly rated.
Likewise, when you downgrade races run over a distance of ground or for fillies and mares – as the committee did this year – you are lessening the chances that races in those divisions will be highly rated.
What has been missing in the American Graded Stakes Committee's analysis for several decades now is common sense: e.g., What impact on the overall pattern of races will be felt if we upgrade more than a dozen sprint races to Grade 1? And what impact will that have on the Thoroughbred breed? (Hint: It's making a breed with less stamina as more Grade 1-winning sprinters become stallions and broodmares.)
It's time for the American Graded Stakes Committee to take a step back, evaluate the overall effect its graded designations have had on the breed for the last 30-plus years, and decide if this is the direction it wants to maintain.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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