12/06/2010 2:59PM

All Grade 1 Races Are Not Created Equal


One point of argument in the ongoing Horse of the Year debate concerning Blame and Zenyatta has been that Zenyatta won five Grade 1 races this year to Blame's three. While this is indeed a fact, this also underscores the importance of recognizing that all Grade 1 races are not created equal. There is a much lower degree of difficulty to winning, for example, the Grade 1 Prioress Stakes, a race restricted to 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs, than there is to winning the Grade 1 Whitney, a race open to all comers older than 2 years of age at nine furlongs.

In this context, maybe we should be thinking about creating a new category of "Super Grade 1" races - let's call it "Super 1's" - to distinguish the really special Grade 1 events that are won by great horses on a consistent basis from the routinely special Grade 1's.

(As an aside, I think if you believe that it is worthwhile coming up with a mechanism to distinguish the most meaningful Grade 1 races from the others, which I do, then creating a new Super 1 category is the realistic way to go. It's a better alternative than downgrading a bunch of borderline Grade 1 races because that would lead to wholesale downgrading of a bunch of Grade 2 and 3 races. It might also unnecessarily penalize a track that might have only one Grade 1 event.)

Anyway, if you buy the concept of a Super 1 category, the next thing to do would be determine what sort of Grade 1 race would qualify. My inclination would be that only races open to all comers should be a Super 1 race. This means that events such as the Kentucky Derby, which is restricted to 3-year-olds, and, say, the Beldame Stakes, which is restricted to females, would not receive Super 1 status. I understand that this - not designating the Kentucky Derby a Super 1 race - would be somewhat controversial. But 3-year-olds and females always always have the opportunity to face older males in unrestricted races if they so desire. Older males, of course, cannot compete in races restricted to 3-year-olds or females, meaning those races by definition are weaker because they exclude a large and often superior group of horses.

Apart from defining the parameters of a Super 1 race, the other thing open for discussion would be specifically which races make the cut. For me, a list of Super 1's would start with the Breeders' Cup Classic, the BC Mile, the BC Turf, and the BC Sprint. From there, races such as the Arlington Million, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Metropolitan Handicap, Pacific Classic, Santa Anita Handicap, Stephen Foster Handicap, and the Whitney Handicap all scream "Super 1" to me.

Other races worthy of consideration include the Ancient Title, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, the United Nations, the Vosburgh, the Woodward, and maybe one or two others I've overlooked.

The point is, some Grade 1 races are, year after year, always stronger than other Grade 1 races. Perhaps the time has come to officially note the distinction.

While on the subject of graded stakes, the American Graded Stakes Committee last week issued its graded stakes list for 2011. This committee usually upgrades and downgrades stakes races based on the quality of the horses who run in those races. For that reason, I was surprised that the committee decided to upgrade the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf from Grade 2 to Grade 1, and the Breeders' Cup Marathon from Grade 3 to Grade 2.

We don't know what this year's Juvenile Turf winner Pluck will go on to accomplish, but we do know his one stakes victory prior to his BC win came in a Grade 3 race, and we know what Juvenile Turf winners before him did. Nownownow won a listed stakes before his Juvenile Turf score, and he made 12 graded or group stakes starts after, only winning the Grade 2 San Fernando on synthetic. None of Donativum's five starts before his Juvenile Turf came in a group stakes race. Four of his subsequent seven starts came in group stakes, none of which he won. And Pounced finished second in a Group 1 race before his Juvenile Turf, but has not raced since.

As for the Marathon, Muhannak made 14 starts before his Marathon, none of which came in a group or graded stakes. He did not hit the board in 11 starts after his Marathon win, eight of which came at the group or graded stakes level. Man of Iron had one attempt at the Group 3 level before his Marathon win and finished a distant fifth. He managed one third in six subsequent starts, and was off the board in two group stakes starts. And 10 of Eldaafer 23 starts before his win in this year's Marathon came in stakes. Eldaafer won two those stakes starts, last year's Grade 2 Brooklyn and this year's Grade 3 Turfway Park Fall Championship.

The BC Juvenile Turf and BC Marathon are still new races. Maybe in time, they might evolve into being important events. But the horses who won these races so far do not exactly make a compelling case for upgrading. So one can only conclude that the real reason why these events were upgraded is strictly because of their link to the Breeders' Cup.