02/08/2011 3:50PM

The Problem with February Grade 1's

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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.