03/23/2012 2:46PM

Crist: Older horses need more spring Grade 1 races

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.


chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
I've witnessed two events that turned the game on it's head, the then stunning syndication of Secretariat and later, the coming of the Breeders Cup. The Fall Highweight races were a fitting end to each season. We'll see Forego no mo' but to Crists' point more Grade 1's would be great all around. However you will never see Musketier at Charles Town and for good reason. We do need more spots for nice older horses to run - on the main track and on grass. Further we need to again look at taking pressure off of the 2yo's. Too many crooks with trainer's license don't have the integrity to take care of their stock. Now just to make you think, we gotta consider writing conditions for the Spring Classics for four-year-olds.
Rob More than 1 year ago
I think next year the Charlestown Classic will recieve a grade 1 statis its already a grade 2 due to the horses that have come last year beside the breeders cup it was the strongest field of older horse in 1 race that year. I'm sure this year will be no different because when you put up 1 million everybody is going to take a shot. Bob in PA
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
as long as the Clark keeps getting quality, deep fields it is fine where it's at. The Foster can stay the same too. All Churchill needs to do is make the Alysheba on Oaks Day 1 and 1/8 miles and give it a purse of $500,000. Make it the race before the Derby and it will be one of, if not the best older horse race in America. All the trainers are shipping horses there that day anyway. All they have to do is bring their best older horse too. With all the $ CD makes on Derby Day, it should be the 3rd biggest card of races in America with big purses, but its not. I wish somebody from DRF would call them on it in an article. All you have to do is look at the handle of each race compared to the purse and it's obvious we're not getting what we pay for... There's over $100,000,000 bet on the Derby alone! Raise your Derby and Oaks Day purses Churchill. Give us the full card off GREAT races we deserve you cheap bastards!
Steven Kotler More than 1 year ago
Sorry for the error in my last post. Grade 1 races range down to 250 thousand. Still.
Steven Kotler More than 1 year ago
I'll take a little latitude here. In the 1950's an NFL franchise had approximately the same value as major Grade 1 races. Today an NFL franchise is upward of 125 million while Grade 1 races range down to 100 thousand. What's up with that??
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Give the Alysheba at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day (you can move it to Derby Day if you want) a purse of $750,000 and a distance of 1 mile and an 8th and it will eventually get G1 status guaranteed. Unfortunately the people at Churchill act broke so that probably won't happen although it should. I've never understood why Keeneland doesn't have a big race for older horses. They should have one in early April. If that all happened you would have the Donn in Feb, SAH in March, Keeneland G1 in April, G1Alysheba in May, Stephen Foster in June, Hollywood Gold Cup in July, Whitney in August, Woodward or Pacific Classic in September, Jockey Club Gold Cup or Goodwood in October. Breeders Cup in November. How's that?
Sue Hooper More than 1 year ago
I understand that Grade 1 is supposed to be the top races but I have noticed a lot of Gr 1's that don't draw such a great field. Also, some of them are run for less than a million dollars. Top races should offer top purses. For the most important horses, it is about money and earnings. If there is a Gr 1 with a purse of $750,000 and a Gr 2 for a million around the same time...a Gr. 2 will do...
Marshall Field More than 1 year ago
I have hoped for years that Keeneland would have a major grade 1 for older horses in either of its meets, especially the spring. It would fit nicely for those going to the Foster next....but Keenelans seems to focus more on younger horses...but a track with its esteem SHOULD have a major race for older horses
thomas b More than 1 year ago
Santa Anita has an excellent balanced condition book for the older horse with the San Antonio, Big Cap and Tokyo City Cup for older, and the San Fernando and Strub for 4 year olds. The only thing I would like to see is for them to shift their schedule back by about a week or two so that the Big Cap (and Big Cap preps) don't loose horses to Dubai; while also restoring the graded status and 1 1/8 distance to the Tokyo City Cup (formerly the San Bernardino Handicap). I'd also like to see some more of an east coast presence in California for these great traditional stakes, especially the Big Cap. After all look at what Mott did this year invading with Ron the Greek. I love this article and I hope that the NTRA and the tracks across the country begin to work together to bring back an American racing series, or an incentive based schedule for older horses, that begins in January and culminates with the BC Classic. Maybe with some success associated with the unifying all of the major racing broadcasts (the triple crown and Breeders Cup; as well as the summers at Saratoga and Keeneland broadcasts) under NBC, we will get the TV audience that would further support this concept.
James More than 1 year ago
I actually don't mind the Foster being where it is. It gives the 3yo's another chance to run against older at the end of the season. By beating older males at the end of his 3yo season, Blame served notice he would be one to reckon with as a 4yo. Plus it is only nine furlongs, so if you didn't want to run at a 1 1/4 in the Classic, you can run here.
James More than 1 year ago
I meant the Clark