11/30/2007 1:00AM

Arkansas Derby deserves better grade

EmailThe North American Graded Stakes Committee does a generally credible job of assigning Grade 1, 2, or 3 status to the nation's most important stakes races, and gets little but grief for its efforts. Theirs is a thankless and politically tricky task, ripe for criticism from track officials who think their major events have been snubbed and owner-breeders who want nothing but expanded opportunities to dress up their horses' records for breeding and sales purposes.

Having said that, the committee invites criticism with the occasional decision that simply defies common sense. The howler among the changes announced last week for the 2008 stakes schedule is the treatment of Oaklawn Park's series of races for 3-year-olds heading to the Triple Crown. The committee did two things right, but by failing to do a third, created a thoroughly illogical situation.

The ungraded Southwest Stakes, the first in the series, was properly raised from ungraded to Grade 3. The Rebel Stakes was understandably elevated from Grade 3 to Grade 2. Yet the capstone of the series, the Arkansas Derby, was inexplicably left as a Grade 2 instead of being restored to the Grade 1 status it deserves.

What more can the Arkansas Derby do to prove it deserves that ranking? The last four winners of the race were Smarty Jones in 2004, who won the Derby, Preakness, and 3-year-old championship; Afleet Alex in 2005, who won the Preakness, Belmont, and 3-year-old title; Lawyer Ron in 2006, who won the 2007 Whitney and Woodward and is odds-on to be named the nation's champion older horse of 2007; and Curlin in 2007, the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders' Cup Classic winner who is certain to be honored with this year's 3-year-old and Horse of the Year honors.

Some would argue that no race for 3-year-olds before the Derby should be a Grade 1, but that's not the issue at hand since the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Santa Anita Derby are all Grade 1s. The Arkansas Derby clearly is of the same caliber in the long haul and stronger than any of them over the last four years. Compare the quartets that have won each race since 2004:

* Arkansas Derby: Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, Curlin

* Blue Grass: The Cliff's Edge, Sinister Minister, Bandini, Dominican

* Florida Derby: Friends Lake, High Fly, Barbaro, Scat Daddy

* Santa Anita Derby: Castledale, Buzzards Bay, Brother Derek, Tiago

* Wood Memorial: Tapit, Bellamy Road, Bob and John, Nobiz Like Shobiz

If you're keeping score: The last four winners of the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby will have won five Eclipse Awards, five Triple Crown races, three 3-year-old championships, and a Horse of the Year title. The 16 winners of the four Grade 1s have combined to account for zero championships and one classic victory, Barbaro's Derby.

Beyond the obvious case for elevating the Arkansas Derby to the same level as those races, the GSC has created a situation where the Rebel is a Grade 2 prep for the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby. This is as silly as the committee's brief and misguided elevation of the Fountain of Youth to Grade 1 status several years ago, making a Florida Derby prep the same grade as the main event.

Instead of giving the Arkansas Derby its proper status, the committee raised three other Grade 2 races a notch, all of them one-mile grass races: the Just a Game at Belmont, and both the Maker's Mark and First Lady at Keeneland. They may all be deserving, but the upgrading of the Maker's Mark follows a logic of recent successes that should have been applied to the Arkansas Derby: Its last three winners (Artie Schiller, Miesque's Approval, and Kip Deville) all won the Breeders' Cup Mile. Yet few would argue they are as powerful a group as Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron, and Curlin.

The other cause for concern in the new schedule is that the three upgrades have swelled the number of American Grade 1s to 110, up from 100 only two years ago, 24 months in which neither the foal crop, the number of racing dates, nor the quality of American racing has grown by 10 percent. Some of the new Breeders' Cup races will eventually get Grade 1 status over the next couple of years and soon we'll be back in the ridiculous territory of the 119 Grade 1s that the GSC properly slashed a few years ago.

The Arkansas Derby deserves an upgrade, but it's also time to downgrade a bunch of other races to maintain the integrity of the entire system.