12/04/2002 1:00AM

Design by committee often iffy


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The American Graded Stakes System was created to assure European bloodstock investors that their Yankee brothers were not pulling a fast one. There was a time, believe it or not, when American sales catalogs had no way of indicating the difference between a Derby in Pennsylvania, Pomona, or Kentucky. The type was all the same shade of black.

That was more than 30 years ago. And the effort was a success. Because of the graded stakes system, sales catalogs began to convey a more accurate sense of class on America's broad racing canvas. A good idea worked. Foreign buyers finally could compare European apples to American oranges with a semblance of confidence.

But what began as a police action against overzealous sales companies and consignors evolved into a virulent, spreading weed of influence and misuse, as the concept of grading stakes became an ingrained notion, akin to ranking restaurants in a Michelin guide.

The annual announcement by the Graded Stakes Committee of the newly crunched list of upgrades, downgrades, and "warnings" is now received each November as if it were a puff of white smoke appearing from the roof of the Sistine Chapel. It has become that important, when it should be no more than a useful clarification in the commercial arena.

Breeders, owners, and trainers are forced to think of stakes in terms of 1, 2, or 3, rather than appreciate their historical context or their traditional value. Racetrack operators covet high rankings as promotional tools. After all, in the marketing world 1 beats 3 every time. There are even regional cheerleaders in the racing press (this writer has been among the guilty), driven to ripe choler when some beloved local race is denigrated with a mystifying downgrade.

And mystifying it was, once it was learned that stakes were graded by a star chamber of breeders and racing secretaries, assembled by the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, who were handcuffed to a haywire, self-perpetuating methodology. A key ingredient calls for Grade 1 races to be populated by Grade 1 winners, who earn their Grade 1 status by winning Grade 1 races. Go ahead, do the math.

The methodology has been tinkered with over the past decade - the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind - and the grading process continues to generate great mounds of computerized statistics, hopefully printed on recyclable paper. Even so, the exercise would be harmless enough, and worthwhile in a limited sense, if it were restricted to its original intent - quality assurance of sales catalogs.

No such luck. Today, the American graded stakes system is invoked by nearly every significant corner of the racing game. Consider the uses, both large and small, to which the graded stakes system is put:

* Points eligibility for inclusion in Breeders' Cup races

* Winnings eligibility for inclusion in overfilled Triple Crown races

* Selection process for horses and humans listed in Eclipse Award ballot package

* Compilation of "designated races" in jurisdictions that allow exemptions for jockeys on suspension

* Advertising of stallions

* Advertising of race meetings.

There are more. The graded stakes system even touches the preservation of the game's precious history, since inclusion in the historical section of the American Racing Manual (published by Daily Racing Form) requires graded status. If this editorial policy continues, there will be no record of either the Stymie Handicap or the Cowdin Stakes in the 2004 Manual, since both lost their Grade 3 ranking for 2003. Bold Ruler, Kelso, and Canonero won the Stymie. Gallant Fox, Hill Prince, Dr. Fager, and Easy Goer won the Cowdin. Thanks for the memories.

Steven Duncker, an owner, breeder, and trustee of the New York Racing Association who this year served his first term as chair of the Graded Stakes Committee, is just coming to terms with the impact of the list.

"We love to have people use it," Duncker said, "and we hope to do a good job so that the output of the committee is something people can trust. But it wasn't set up for that necessarily."

He got that right. But at what point does the creator take responsibility for misuse of the creation? The American Graded Stakes Committee seems content to enjoy the power and the publicity of its work, while doing nothing to control its inappropriate application.

Now the committee intends to flex its muscles in an entirely new direction. There is a movement to take the graded stakes system into the murky waters of drug-testing, where politics and profit usually trump good science. The proposal: Require all graded stakes to conduct a supertest that screens for more than 140 identifiable substances. Otherwise - no grade.

"This comes from a level of passion you hear on this topic at TOBA board and executive committee meetings," Duncker said. "Most participants in the sport want to get drug testing right. The TOBA board would like to see this policy in effect everywhere, all the time. But the only area we have any purchase is over the graded stakes."

Fine. But the Graded Stakes Committee should not be surprised if the power play fails, and racetracks suddenly realize those dubiously graded races come at a price too high.