12/03/2009 1:00AM

Arkansas Derby heads three new Grade 1's

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The Arkansas Derby is officially a Grade 1.

The race, which over the past six years has been a stepping-stone in the careers of Horse of the Year Curlin and champions Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, and Lawyer Ron, was elevated to Grade 1 status, along with two other Grade 2 races, as a result of a review of U.S. stakes races held in the past 12 months by the American Graded Stakes Committee, an arm of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

In addition, the committee assigned grades to the three Breeders' Cup races that were added to the event's schedule in 2008. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint were each assigned a Grade 2, while the Breeders' Cup Marathon was assigned a Grade 3.

The other races to be upgraded to a Grade 1 were the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga and the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. Both races have recently become major events on the older-horse circuit.

In total, the committee assigned grades to 487 unrestricted stakes with a purse of at least $75,000, two less than last year. That means that of the unrestricted stakes scheduled to be run over the next 12 months in the United States, 67.4 percent of them will be graded.

Fifteen races in total were upgraded, while 23 were downgraded, though two of the downgrades occurred because the races were not eligible for grading, the committee said.

Five races were downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2: the Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park, the Frank J. DeFrancis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park, the Go For Wand Handicap at Saratoga, the John C. Mabee Stakes at Del Mar, and the Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita.

Stakes restricted to 3-year-olds received a slew of upgrades and downgrades, accounting for 17 of the 38 total changes.

In addition to the Arkansas Derby, the American Turf Stakes on the turf at Churchill Downs, the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, and the Sir Beaufort Stakes on the turf at Santa Anita were boosted from Grade 3 to Grade 2, while the Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows and the Sunland Derby at Sunland Park were assigned a Grade 3.

Because the Sunland Derby was assigned a grade, the race's purse will be increased from $600,000 to $800,000. Sunland Park announced three weeks ago it would make the boost if the race was graded. Earlier this year, Mine That Bird, the upset winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, finished fourth in the race.

Of the downgrades for 3-year-old races, the Illinois Derby at Hawthrone, the Jefferson Cup Stakes on the turf at Churchill, and the Ohio Derby at Thistledown were downgraded from Grade 2 to Grade 3. The Baldwin Stakes on the turf at Santa Anita, the Barbaro Stakes at Delaware Park, the Calder Derby on the turf at Calder, and the Cinema Handicap on the turf at Hollywood all lost their Grade 3 status and are now ungraded.

On the 3-year-old filly side, the Comely Stakes at Aqueduct went from Grade 2 to Grade 3, the Miss Preakness Stakes lost its Grade 3, and the Safely Kept at Laurel and the Frances A. Genter Stakes at Calder were no longer eligible for grading.