11/30/2012 4:34PM

Crist: Committee gets it right with graded stakes changes

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Barbara D. Livingston
Shanghai Bobby wins this year's Grade 2 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. The race will be run as a Grade 1 next year.

The North American Graded Stakes Committee takes so many barbs that it’s only fair to toss a laurel its way when it gets things right – which is exactly what it did Friday when it announced its grade changes for the 2013 stakes schedule.

The committee announced 12 upgrades and 16 downgrades, a tally that is directionally correct in an era of contraction. With foals crops declining and horses making fewer starts per year, it is impossible to argue against reducing the number of upper-echelon races.
More important, the specific races whose grades were changed at the very top of the pecking order were all thoroughly deserving of being moved up or down a notch.

Reversing a poor and hasty decision after just one year, the committee restored the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga to a Grade 1. It made little sense to take it down a peg while leaving the Spinaway, Del Mar Futurity, and Del Mar Debutante as Grade 1’s, creating a geographical and gender imbalance at the start of the juvenile Grade 1 calendar.

The decision was made to look even sillier by the extraordinary success of runners emerging from the last two Hopefuls. The 2011 edition yielded Derby-Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg, and Woody Stephens winner Currency Swap. The 2012 edition, run as a Grade 2, has in just three months produced the certain juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby, who went on to win the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Overanalyze, who returned to win the Belmont Futurity and the Remsen.

It is unusual, if not unprecedented, for the committee to change a race back to a Grade  1 after just one year of downgrading, but in this case it was absolutely the right thing to do.

[MORE: Hopeful and Delaware Handicap boosted to Grade 1 status]

The other upgrade is the Delaware Handicap, which has attracted champions Blind Luck, Havre de Grace, and Royal Delta over the past two years. Especially with the discontinuation of New York’s Ruffian Handicap, which was scrapped this year after a two-year move to July at Saratoga, the Delaware Handicap is the definitive July race for older females and appears headed back to the days when it was routinely won by champions such as Susan’s Girl, Late Bloomer, and Relaxing.

The three races that lost their Grade 1 status were fair targets. The Gazelle, once run in early September at Belmont, began losing its luster when it stopped attracting the A-list because it was too close to the Alabama. Moving it to Thanksgiving weekend at Aqueduct starting two years ago did not work, and the only graded stakes winner in this year’s field earned her black type in Puerto Rico.

The two other downgrades were at Santa Anita, where the Santa Monica and the Whittingham will now be run as Grade 2’s. No disrespect to Acclamation, a legit Grade 1 horse who has won the last three Whittinghams, but the fields were otherwise weak ones. The Santa Monica has been similarly thin, and a Grade 1 sprint for older females in January has never seemed quite right.

Six former Grade 2 races will be Grade 3’s in 2013, while six former Grade 3’s will drop to listed status. Those dozen dropdowns are nearly balanced by 10 upgrades, including the elevation of the Fort Lauderdale, Monrovia, and Sorrento from Grade 3 to Grade 2, and the Colonial Turf Cup from listed to Grade 2.

Defenders of some of the downgraded races will have their quarrels, but at least these were thoughtful and defensible decisions made in consultation with a wide-ranging and geographically balanced group of racing officials, owners, and breeders. That is a sharp contrast to Churchill Downs’s new Kentucky Derby qualifying system, which threw the graded stakes system out the window in favor of a corporate-driven marketing plan to boost the importance of races at tracks owned by Churchill while punishing its rivals. The idea that winning the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby is literally 10 times more important than winning the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is utterly preposterous to anyone not employed by Churchill, where officials have said they consulted with no one else about the new scheme.

The Graded Stakes Committee swiftly acknowledged it made a mistake with the Hopeful after just one year. With any luck, Churchill Downs will do the same and come up with a more fair and reasonable Derby-qualifying system just as quickly.

BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
The winner of the Grade 2 $1,000,000 Louisiana Derby was always going to get into the Derby. The winner of the Juvenile is a Street Sense away from being 0 for the Derby. Surprised you didn't know that.
HandicapperErni More than 1 year ago
Sad to see the Santa Monica and Charlie Whittingham races go to G2. Gazelle was a little understandble.
George Escowitz More than 1 year ago
Steve: Kudos to you for squawking about not granting the penultimate 2-YO race of the Saratoga meet a Grade I status. The old-timers looking down, are sure to blow a photo finish or two in your favor, next summer for a big pick 6.
George Escowitz More than 1 year ago
I meant ultimate not penultimate.(bobbled this)
Justine More than 1 year ago
I'm crying over the injustice that was the Committee's "poor and hasty decision" to reduce the Hopeful to a G2 this year. More like crying with laughter at the suggestion that it created a geographical and gender imbalance. Hilarious.
Jacqueline Schumacher More than 1 year ago
Now we need a few Grade 1, 12+ furlong dirt races for older horses; name them in honor of great distance runners of the past, and make a series out of it--we already have at least one in place (the Cougar II). Have it culminate at the Breeder's Cup Marathon for official Eclipse Champion Stayer honors.
Mick More than 1 year ago
About time the Delaware Handicap is a Gr.1, long overdue. Fleet Indian, Hystericalady, Royal Delta and Blind Luck's unforgettable win among many recent winners would suggest a Gr.1 race. Too bad about the Whittingham downgrading. The Gazelle is understandable, another race NYRA seems to no longer care about.
W.G. More than 1 year ago
Del 'Cap should have been upgraded to Grade 1 years ago. This upgrade is long overdue for what is the richest non-BC race in the sport for older females on dirt.
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
Why do races need to be graded at all the purse and competition speaks for itself. How many grade 1 races didzenyatta win against competition made up of former claimers and at best grade 3 runners..........
ATOWN WHAT More than 1 year ago
Not all purses are created equal. Some G1 races are $1M, some are $250K. Depends on the track, the season, the class of horses. 3 y.o. fillies are not going to consistently get the same following as 3 y.o. males. Thus, the purses for them will be lower. But there is a top tier of these fillies, so there needs to be G1 class races for them to compete in, even if the overall purse is half of what you would get with the males.
Ponies Payme More than 1 year ago
ALL OF THEM!
Jordan More than 1 year ago
The problem with downgrading the Whittingham to gr.2 status is that it leaves California with no gr. 1 races for marathon turf (older)males. The Clement Hirsch lost its gr.1 status 2 years ago, the same for the Hollywood Turf Cup. The San Juan Capistrano lost its gr.1 a decade ago, the San Luis Rey 15 years ago. There was a time not that long ago that the Sunset was a gr.1. The now defunct Burke was even a grade 1. For turf males in Cali beyond a mile, that leaves the 9 furlong Eddie Read and the Hollywood Derby for 3 year olds as the only grade 1s. In contrast, NY has gr.1s for older marathon turf males in the Manhattan, Sword Dancer, Man O War, and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic with the UN Cap nearby. That's a huge geographic imbalance. And the fact the Sword Dancer has been a gr.1 even though it is run on Arlington Million weekend and invariably draws the weaker field, makes its gr.1 status extremely dubious. And say what you will of the Whittingham, it has drawn an Eclipse champion and 6-time gr.1 winner the last 3 years, and drew a 7-time gr.1 winner Lava Man from 2006-2008.
Mick More than 1 year ago
Well Point of Entry's presence helped the Sword Dancer a ton this year, but its possible if it still tries to compete with the Million on the same weekend it could face the same fate as the Gazelle, poor timing leading to downgrading.
Gerardo Helguera More than 1 year ago
Here are the past five Santa Monica winners. Home Sweet Aspen, Switch, Gabbys Golden Gal, Ventura and Intangaroo. All these past winners but Home Sweet Aspen are legit Grade 1 sprinters, even though Home Sweet Aspen at her best can compete with a Grade 2 horses but I believe this is a legit Grade 1 race that should had kept it's status.
Gerardo Helguera More than 1 year ago
The Santa Monica should had not been downgraded. It didn't attract a very good field this year but the past years has drawn very nice fields and quality horses. This race is a Grade 1 that many owners and trainers look forward to at the beginning of the year to enhance the resume of their fillies and mares.