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.