12/08/2009 7:28PM

Degrading

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The American Graded Stakes Committee last week changed the grades of 38 of the 487 graded stakes scheduled to be run next year, and the oft-maligned group deserves high marks on both the specifics and the general direction of those alterations:



Restoring the Grade 1 status of the Arkansas Derby and Clark Handicap, and giving graded status to the newly-Grade 3 Sunland Derby,  were the at the top of every critic's list of proposed changes. Upgrading the Vanderbilt to a Grade 1 at least created parity between the Saratoga and Del Mar sprint stakes, so that the Pat O'Brien, Bing Crosby, Vanderbilt and Forego are now all Grade 1's instead of the Vanderbil's being an orphan Grade 2.

Grade1a

It's also mildly encouraging that the committee anointed three new Grade 1's while downgrading five previous ones, a net loss of two Grade 1's. (Last year, they added six new Grade 1's while downgrading only one.) There are clearly too many Grade 1 stakes races on the calendar, with the foal crop down 40 percent from when there were slightly fewer Grade 1's a generation ago, and horses making fewer starts per year.

Some of the necessary further reductions on the sprawling graded-stakes calendar may take care of themselves without committee action. Santa Anita announced a 2010 stakes schedule last month that included the suspension of six graded stakes, and the New York Racing Association took the unusual step of announcing its 2010 stakes schedule only through April, suggesting further cuts are to come.

I'm still trying to make sense of the GSC's other announcement last week, that it is retracting the grades from the 2009 runnings of Pennsylvania's three graded stakes -- the G2 Cotillion, G2 Pennsylvania Derby and G3 Presque Isle Masters -- because the state did not follow the GSC's protocols for CO2 testing, which exceed state requirements.

Fortunately, the decision does not particularly damage the credentials of the three race winners: Informed Decision (Masters) is still a multiple G1 winner and the heavy favorite for the Filly Sprinter Eclipse Award; Gone Astray (Pennsylvania Derby) also won the G2 Ohio Derby (downgraded to a G3 for next year), and Careless Jewel won the G1 Alabama before winning the Cotillion. Still, the decision smacks of taking some of the purse money back from a race months after it has been run. The graded status of the races had something to do with their connections' decision to ship from out of state and run.

If the point was to punish Pennsylvania, it seems the GSC hit innocent bystanders instead of the deserving target, punishing deserving winners and their connections instead of those responsible for determining and administering the testing. Wouldn't it have been more fitting to withhold the grades for next year's runnings?