09/17/2009 11:00PM

Canadian Grade 1's meet standard


The only graded stakes races in North America Sunday, and the only Grade 1 races on the continent until October, are north of the border, where Woodbine will stage the $1 million Woodbine Mile and the $750,000 Northern Dancer. While you have to knock down those purses by 6 percent to reflect the current rate of currency exchange between the United States and Canada, don't also mentally knock down their grades: When Canada calls a race a Grade 1, it actually means it.

Down here in the lower 48, Grade 1 races have been devalued over the last generation. Twenty years ago, there were 114 Grade 1 races run in the United States, a year in which 74,071 races were run in this country. So 1 out of every 650 races was deemed worthy of Grade 1 status.

This year, there will probably be just fewer than 50,000 races run in the States, but there are still 114 Grade 1 races, dropping the rate to 1 out of every 455 races. The inequity is even more glaring when you consider that the average number of starts per racehorse each year has dropped from 8.1 to 6.2 during that time, perhaps even more so among sparingly campaigned stakes horses.

Canada has taken an entirely different approach to graded races over the last decade, making a strong case that less can be more. It withdrew from the American grading system and reset its grades in an attempt to give its truly worthy events more recognition and credibility in the international arena.

There will be just fewer than 5,000 races in Canada this year (there were 4,950 in 2008) and only four Grade 1's: The Woodbine Mile and Northern Dancer on Sunday, and the E.P. Taylor and Canadian International, both on Oct. 17. That works out to about 1 of every 1,200 Canadian races being a Grade 1 as opposed to the current U.S. rate of 1 in 455.

The Canadian Graded Stakes Committee has shown similar restraint with its other graded stakes. Only nine other races are considered Grade 2's: the Autumn, Canadian, Dance Smartly, King Edward, Nassau, Nearctic, Nijinsky, Play the King and Sky Classic. Canada has a total of only 35 graded races: four Grade 1's, nine Grade 2's and 22 Grade 3's. So only 12 percent of its graded races are Grade 1's, and there are five times as many Grade 3's as Grade 1's.

This gives a very different slope to its pyramid of graded races than the American version: 114 Grade 1's, 159 Grade 2's and 214 Grade 3's. So in Canada, 12 percent of the graded stakes are Grade 1's. but in the Unites States, 23 percent of the graded races are Grade 1's.

Of Canada's 13 Grade 1 or 2 races (all run at Woodbine), all but the Grade 2 Autumn are run on the grass. Woodbine's main track is now a Polytrack, but the Canadian Graded Stakes Committee has shown wise restraint in not to trying to give ambitious grades to synthetic-track races while these surfaces are in their introductory and experimental phases. It is also consistent with the standards of most international racing, where there are no Grade 1 races on synthetic surfaces other than in the United States and, starting next year, a handful in Dubai.

Even in 1989, when we ran 50 percent more races than we do now and had the same number of Grade 1's that we do today, the American Graded Stakes Committee thought that the Grade 1 roster had become bloated. That year, they reduced the number of Grade 1's from 122 to 114, including downgrades of the Laurel Futurity, Young America, Remsen, Swaps and Dwyer. Further downgrades brought the number under 100 during the 1990's, but over the last decade the number has soared again even as the sport has contracted.

It's time for another round of scrutiny. It just doesn't add up that we have reduced the volume of racing by a third and horses are making fewer starts than ever but we have the same number of Grade 1 events. We would do well to look to the north for a better approach.

Champion strong in comeback win

Midshipman, last year's champion 2-year-old, returned from a 329-day absence to win , a remarkable feat for a sidelined juvenile champion. In the last 40 years, no champion 2-year-old colt or gelding had won his return from a layoff of six months or more (though Gilded Time's third-place finish in the 1993 Breeders' Cup Sprint off a one-year absence was a gallant effort.)

Midshipman, who outdueled Just Ben before drawing clear in a sharp 1:15.84 for 6 1/2 furlongs, continued an extraordinary streak of Godolphin stable runners who have run extremely well in recent weeks off long absences, including first-place finishes off similar absences by Vineyard Haven in the Grade 1 King's Bishop (though he was disqualified to second) and Sara Louise in the Grade 3 Victory Ride.