02/08/2011 3:50PM

The Problem with February Grade 1's


There allegedly were three Grade 1 stakes races last Saturday, the only three on the national racing calendar for February: The Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap at Gulfstream, and the Las Virgenes at Santa Anita. There's a reasonable case to be made, however, that only one of them really deserved that ranking.

The Donn and the GPTH, run half an hour apart at Gulfstream Saturday, could not have been more different in terms of the accomplishments of the respective fields of nine and eight who contested them. The Donn field included three G1 winners, had earned a combined $6.5 million and had a collective record of 16: 3-5-3 in Grade 1 company. The GPTH field had earned half as much, did not include a Grade 1 winner, and its contestants had combined for a 12: 0-1-1 record in G1 races. Those two placings, and nearly a third of the field's earnings, came from one horse, Battle of Hastings.

The GPTH field was bettable and competitive, and the finish was exciting, with 25-1 Teaks North nosing out 8-1 Smart Bid in the final stride. Gulfstream put together as strong a field as possible, given how few top grass horses are even in serious training this early in the year. The latter point is the issue here, along with the ongoing fiction that American grass racing is of equal quality to its dirt racing -- a fiction perpetuated by the the fact that there are more unrestricted Grade 1 races at a mile or more for older horses on grass than dirt each year.

There's a somewhat different problem with the Las Virgenes. No one can knock the quality of the top two finishers, Zazu and Turbulent Descent, who look like major players in the division and of legitimate G1 quality. But how is any race for 3-year-old fillies as early as Feb. 4 truly a Grade 1 event? There are no Grade 1 races for the 3-year-old colts until the Florida Derby April 2, a full eight weeks later.

The Las Virgenes has been won by plenty of nice Grade 1 fillies, but it is essentially a prep for the Santa Anita Oaks four weeks later. Making the Las Virgenes a Grade 1 is the equivalent of making male races such as the Fountain of Youth, Gotham, Rebel or San Rafael Grade 1's because they respectively lead to the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby and Santa Anita Derby.

The Graded Stakes Committee actually did elevate the Fountain of Youth to a Grade 1 for a couple of years before a strong wave of criticism prompted a downgrading. In that case, common sense -- that a prep for a prep is obviously not a Grade 1 event -- triumphed over the circular logic that the FOY was a Grade 1 race because future Grade 1 winners had contested it.

The graded-stakes system is an easy and frequent target for critics, because not all races of the same grade can ever be truly equal, and any race can come up weaker or stronger in any given year for unforeseeable reasons. The system basically works, but an adjustment in the top tier is overdue. Between a smaller foal crop, fewer racing dates and dramatically shorter campaigns by top horses, it is indefensible that there are over 110 Grade 1 races on the calendar, more than there were a generation ago.

michael saunders More than 1 year ago
steve...i have an unrelated question...it is about Beyer figs....I saw thet Twirling Candy got a 101 Beyer for his win at SA on 2/5...Giant Oak got a 105 at GP the next day...correct me if I am wrong, but if the average guy was to see them in a race together, and look at the beyer figs, they might conclude that Giant Oak was a faster horse, yet if they DID race against each other, Twirling Candy would be 1-5...is SA just being pushed off as a freaky fast track, and its times not relevant? [The final time of the Strub is what it is, and couldn't be given a bigger figure relative to the other races on the card. I wouldn't be too literal about it as a gauge of the upper limits of Twirling Candy's ability, given that we know he's capable of running faster and that he easily disposed of pretty thin competition and was not asked for his best during the final furlong. -SC]
HorseRun More than 1 year ago
After seeing the last few winners of the Kentucky Derby, it seems clear to me that it should be a Grade 3
Walt P. More than 1 year ago
I've several times in the past suggesting going to a four or five-tiered Graded Stakes format that would eliminate many of the problems we've had with such a system. Here's how a five-tiered version might work: Grade 1: The truly major events like the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup Events, as well as a handful of others like the Arlington Million, Travers, Canadian International and Jockey Club Gold Cup. The minimum purse would be $750,000 ADDED by the track (not guaranteed, track must put up the full advertised purse). Grade 2: The rest of the major Grade 1s like the Met Mile, Foster, Beldame, Manhattan, Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Pacific Classic, Man o'War, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Haskell and so forth (plus the Cotillion, one of two races under the current rules I would have upgraded to Grade 1 for 2011). The minimum purse for such would be $600,000 added (by the track) and $750,000 guaranteed (with a minimum of $600,000 added). Grade 3: The rest of the current Grade 1s (like the Las Virgenes, Donn and GP Turf) as well as some higher level Grade 2s like the Louisiana Derby, Pennsylvania Derby, Delaware Oaks, and so forth. The minimum purse for such would be $400,000 guaranteed (up from the current $250,000 for Grade 1 stakes). Grade 4: The rest of the current Grade 2s plus some Grade 3s like the Sunland Park Derby, Charles Town Classic, Illinois Derby and so forth. The minimum purse would be $200,000 (up from the current $150,000 for Grade 2s). Grade 5: The rest of the Grade 3s along with some stakes not currently Graded. The minimum purse for these would be $100,000, same as what is apparently the current minimum for Grade 3 events. This may very well present a less-confusing system.
grant miller More than 1 year ago
I am an otb better in n.y.s. it gets me ouy when t.breeds run for big monney!-Im a harness player,but my o.t.b. has a big crowd (50 ) when tampa or gulf has a big race! up here people still dream of there derby horse in feb
C More than 1 year ago
Getting rid of the graded stakes system altogether would be the best thing for the sport. Owners and trainers know who the best horses in each division are. Instead of allowing them to win weak "Grade 1" races to bolster their horses' breeding future, force stud fees to be determined by a free consumer market. Right now, the only thing that matters is how many Grade 1s a horse has on their resume. Stallion registers record the name of the race, but over time, people forget how strong or weak most of those races were. If there were no grades to serve as a summary sheet, things like "which horses did they run against and beat?" become more important. Without grades, I believe many owner/breeders would force their trainers to stop ducking the better horses in each division. They would want to run against the best of the best. The real prestigious races would be sorted out very quickly, while the less prestigious ones would be weeded out. There will still be weaker and better editions of each race, depending on injuries, the crop in general, etc... but nobody is going to have to wonder whether 2 Grade 1s are truly equal. The better races will basically be the same ones year after year and will be fairly consistent in quality. I believe this change will encourage better competition at the higher levels and discourage young stars from retiring early before we get a chance to see how good they really are.
Walfred More than 1 year ago
The LV's resume speaks for itself and it should not be discriminated becuase of its placing in the calender. There are many G1 prep races in the fall before the BC and one would not downgrade the JCGC because "it's only a prep." In addition the LV is not a prep for a prep and should not be regarded as the equivalent to the Fountain of Youth, Gotham, Rebel or San Rafael.
michael kaczer More than 1 year ago
Once a race announcer of Greyhounds, Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, and involved as a horse owner at one time, I always felt that the horse tracks should thank the dog tracks across America for simulcasting horse races. I know that the slots at tracks have helped increase purses. However, dog tracks have carried horse signals well before slots were introduced to race tracks. greyhound tracks such as Palm Beach and Daytona carry everything racing under the sun and the moon. I always felt that horse tracks should have given dog tracks the same consideration as far as carrying dog races like those tracks simulcast horses. I know it would and will never happen. It was just a thought I had about twenty years ago. Racing is and has been in trouble for several years. As the old die, the young people of today don't want to take the time to think or study a racing form. They would rather bet a sports parlay or play internet poker. As far as I'm concerned, win or lose, horse racing is the best betting game in the world. It's challenging and can be very rewarding. What also hurts racing is small fields at certain tracks. California racing is a bridge jumper's paradise. But, if you're a price player. betting those races can become far and few between. I feel when tracks offer guaranteed pools in certain exotic wagers such as a pick four or a pick six, it helps that track's handle for that day. I live in Las Vegas where race books except for Tuesdays appear to do well. I'm not sure at this time what the future of racing holds. If tracks can hold or increase purses, it will give the small person such as myself a chance to get back in the business in a partnership with others. i feel that tracks which have weekly concerts and Friday night racing are on the right path in an attempt to introduce younger people into the sport. One aspect of the game that needs fixing are the minutes in between races. Waiting 24 minutes for a six horse field is ridiculous. I hope that my thoughts make some sense because I love racing and I want to see it go on.
Eddie More than 1 year ago
Steve I have always considered you at the top echelon of racing writers and I have no quarrel with your suggestions in changing the graded earnings system I think that,more importantly,we should change the earnings system for Ky. Derby eligibility. These earnings are usually inflated-Delta jackpot is an example. Further Delta Jackpot winners are usually not found at Derby time. We want to see Colts and Fillies run in the 3 yo. stakes and not eliminate worthy runners at Derby time who were out-earned as a 2Yo. Crediting only half of a 2yo earnings would go a long way to insure the right horses compete in the Derby. Your insightful and thoughtful articles in the past have not gone unnoticed. Thanks Ed H
ace More than 1 year ago
i agree. i believe there are too many graded races and this keeps the best horses from racing each other. the connections can duck each others horses and still find a graded race facing softer competition.
Jim C. More than 1 year ago
...Last summer, the Test at Saratoga had the following top 3 finishers: Champagne d'Oro, Bonnie Blue Flag, and Belle of the Hall. That supposedly was a "Grade 1" race. And the Prioress at Belmont had the following top 3 finishers:Franny Freud, Champagne d'Oro, and Bonnie Blue Flag. And that supposedly was a "Grade 1" race. Compare those fields to last year's Hollywood Oaks and Cotillion. The Hollywood Oaks had the top 3 year old filly in the country, Blind Luck (fresh off her win in the Kentucky Oaks), and Swith. Also, consider the Cotillion, which had Blind Luck and Havre de Grace, the top two 3 year old fillies in the country entered. That was a "Grade 2."