12/02/2009 3:48AM



Stan Fulton owns Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino, down there in a corner of the Southwest where you can pretty much hopscotch between New Mexico, Old Mexico and Texas. El Paso is the nearest town of any size. Sunland offers Thoroughbred racing again starting on Dec.11 and running through next April, and for the last seven years the highpoint of the meet has been the running of the Sunland Park Derby. Still, you could ask a hundred racing fans to name the winner of the 2009 Sunland Derby and get nothing but blank stares. But to a man, woman and child they could tell you who finished fourth, because his name was Mine That Bird.

On Tuesday, Fulton will be poised with a check for $200,000 in one hand and a noose in the other. If the wise men of the American Graded Stakes Committee--that star chamber convening in Lexington--decide to bestow a Grade 3 rating upon the Sunland Park Derby, Fulton will bump the pot to $800,000 (it says so right there in the stakes book) and the future of the race will be more or less secure. If the committee snubs Sunland again, chances are there won't be a Sunland Park Derby in 2010. Or if there is, it won't be worth anywhere near 600 large.

"Every year the committee says, 'Give it another year, a few more years,' but it all comes to a head with this one," said Dustin Dix, Sunland's director of racing. "We've tried everything we could think of--made the distance longer, added purse money, offered bonuses tied to the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby, graded earnings. We've sent letters, DVDs of the races and the horses who've run, and I even made an appeal in person. This year we decided to just let the record of the race speak for itself. And I'm staying home. Maybe that will help."

If Dix sounds desperate, he is. Sunland Park is by far the most successful racetrack between Del Mar and Lone Star, but without the patina of graded race respectability, Sunland remains in the eyes of the rest of the racing world a quaint backwater, its purses pumped by slot machines and its horses going nowhere. Never mind Mine That Bird.

The Graded Race System began in the early 1970s as a reasonable method by which foreign buyers could assess the black type accomplishments listed in the pedigrees of American sales catalogs. Now, you had to be a real dummy if you hit the Keeneland summer sale not knowing the difference between the Kentucky Derby and the Longacres Derby. Some confusion was justified, though, when a page could present any old race with "stakes" attached on equal terms with a Jockey Club Gold Cup or a Widener Handicap.

Today, deep into its fourth decade, the influence of the Graded Race System pervades nearly every corner of the sport. Its masters at the Lexington-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association wield the power of the Graded Race List with a heavy hand, pushing agendas and shaping the behavior of horsemen and racetrack managers everywhere. The vocabulary of the game is replete with references to "graded this" and "graded that," like so much harmless, background noise. But at the same time, the list itself is treated as holy writ, and to challenge the authority of the Graded Race System is to appear to meddle with a primal force of nature (thank you Paddy Chayefsky).

Only this. This power was not granted. It was taken, slowly at first, and then faster, until each season brings a new subject that is linked without apparent logic or protest to the assignment of grades to races. Convenience is the key to the near universal use of the graded race list, and that might be okay, if the manner in which races are graded wasn't so terribly flawed.

Take, for example, its reliance on circular logic. Races are graded on the basis of participation by horses who have participated in graded races which are graded on the basis of participation by...you get the idea. There is also, for window dressing, an analysis of races by something called the North American Rating Committee. There is a subjective component, as well, dictated by the personal inclinations of the committee members. And this year, for the first time, ThoroGraph data will be used. Good luck on that learning curve.

The committee cannot be blamed for the misappropriated uses to which the grades of races are put. Those include entree to the Kentucky Derby, because of its chronically overstuffed fields, and the Breeders' Cup, for those oversubscribed events. Stewards consult the list of local graded races to exempt jockeys from serving certain suspension days. Graded earnings pop up from time to time in the conditions of stakes races. Graded stakes are used as the default mechanism to compile the past performances for Eclipse Award ballot packages. Advertisements for stallions and stakes schedules are littered with references to graded stakes.

In the last decade, however, the Graded Stakes Committee has become proactive in ways never imagined by its founders. The committee has dictated drug-testing regimes to get graded approval. They have dabbled in requirements for certain types of horse shoes. To earn a grade today, a race is now required to have a minimum purse level, forcing racetracks to give up autonomy over their own product. How absurd does it get? In 2009, the minimum purse to get a Grade 1 rating was $300,000. For 2010, the committee has dropped that number to $250,000, but for 2011 it will be back to $300,000. If nothing else, it's nice to see that someone has faith in the prospect of an economic turnaround.

And there's this, the ultimate hole in the system. Since races are graded in advance of their running, two things become apparent: First, this is a tacit admission that, at its heart, the process is nothing more than a public relations tool. Second, it makes the innocent pay. Say they downgrade the 2010 Classico Pacifico, from 1 to 2. Then the year unfolds, the stars align, and suddenly the Classico draws the best field in its recent history, as tough a race on paper as any Grade 1 event on the block, and then does so again in 2011. For 2012, given the weight of their calculations, the committee would have no choice but to reinstate the race to Grade 1 level. Ah, but the winners of those power-packed 2010 and 2011 runnings--the horses who helped get them there--would be credited with only a Grade 2 win.

Most fans, I'm guessing, could care less. They don't need to be told that the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby has become every bit as important a Kentucky Derby prep as the Santa Anita Derby or the Wood Memorial. And they probably don't realize such respected events as the Suburban and Clark Handicaps have been dropped, elevated, and dropped again over the past eight years. Yet most fans parrot the terminology, citing grades of races in conversations regarding the relative merits of horses, as if these numbers were handed down from MIT, thoroughly scrutinized.

The men in that room in Lexington are valuable. They have a lot to contribute to the sport. But as long as they're volunteering their time, let's give them a better job.