03/23/2012 1:46PM

Crist: Older horses need more spring Grade 1 races

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Benoit & Associates
Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek will not have another opportunity to run in another Grade 1 stakes until mid-June.

Everyone complains that American racing does a poor job of providing a clear path of major events for its older horses until the end of the season, and one look at the 2012 national racing calendar confirms that they’re right: There are no Grade 1 route races for older males between the Santa Anita Handicap in early March and the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in mid-June.

We ask these horses to gear up for Grade 1 appearances in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream in February and the Big Cap a month later, then offer them nothing for the next 15 weeks. This effectively brings what should be the sport’s most important division to a dead halt for almost four months while shortening its season to a short window between the Foster and the Breeders’ Cup Classic four months later.

There are plenty of Grade 1 opportunities from June on, so many in fact that the top Eastern horses can stay in the East (for the Foster, Whitney, Woodward and Jockey Club Cold Cup), the Western horses can stay in the West (for the Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, and Goodwood), and we don’t see the best older horses face one another until a single showdown at the Classic in November.

It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago during the successful but short-lived American Championship Racing Series, when older horses competed for bonuses in an organized 10-race program, the Big Cap was followed by the Oaklawn Handicap in April and the Pimlico Special in May. The Oaklawn race has slipped to Grade 2 status and no longer draws the top older horses in the nation, and it’s an annual mystery whether there will even be a Pimlico Special, which will be run this year but is down to a Grade 3 rating.

A major contributing factor to the current second-quarter drought was the emergence of the Dubai World Cup at the end of March, where a massive purse began attracting the top American older horses in the 1990s and 2000s. Since the switch from a dirt surface to a Tapeta track two years ago, however, that race is no longer an attractive target for America’s top dirt horses.

The Breeders’ Cup keeps saying it is working on a year-long series of premier races leading to the Classic, but we’ve been hearing that for at least five years with no progress. The Breeders’ Cup Challenge program doesn’t address the issue because it does not even begin for this division until the Foster, the first Win and You’re In race for the Classic.

It’s time for some bold track operator – or, perish the thought, for a few to work together – to provide some worthy targets for the so-called handicap division. Here are a few possibilities they might want to consider to fill the hole between the Big Cap and the Foster:

◗ Since Gulfstream, Santa Anita, and Pimlico are under the common ownership of Frank Stronach’s Magna Group, why not think of some bonus incentives to get horses to target an early-season triple of the Donn, Big Cap, and a rejuvenated Pimlico Special? In addition to restoring the Special, this could actually get horses to run in both the Donn and the Big Cap.

◗ Oaklawn could try to put the Oaklawn Handicap back on the map with a big purse boost, providing a national target and making the race as big a part of its April racing festival as the Apple Blossom for fillies and the Arkansas Derby for 3-year-olds.

◗ Churchill Downs could consider moving the Foster to its opening weekend or even the Oaks or Derby cards a week later. Conversely, it could consider moving the Grade 1 Clark Handicap from November – why do we need a Grade 1 route for older males a month after the Classic? – to that April/May slot, perhaps offering a Clark/Foster bonus.

◗ New York could use some of its newfound slot riches to present a seven-digit purse for older males in April or May – or June if the Foster were moved back four to six weeks – either with a new race or by reinventing one of its fading fixtures such as the Suburban or Brooklyn.

Any of these new or enhanced races would work as part of existing scheduled national telecasts of 3-year-old races such as the Preakness (Pimlico Special) Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Handicap), Kentucky Oaks and Derby (Foster), and Belmont (a New York race.) All these telecasts could use more racing content, and wouldn’t it be fun and instructive to begin the narrative that these are the horses the 3-year-olds are going to be taking on later in the year and at the Breeders’ Cup?

Obviously these notions are for the most part mutually exclusive – do them all and we would have an even more fractured division and a bunch of five-horse fields with inflated purses. Any one of them, however, would begin to solve the current problem in a significant way and move the sport towards what should be its goal: a year-long series of rich races that would have the best horses in the country racing against one another all the way to the Breeders’ Cup.