06/24/2011 2:41PM

Down if not out in Beverly Hills

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It took this reporter a full year for it to sink in, that the Beverly Hills Handicap, once a jewel in the crown of the summer Hollywood Park season, has been rendered to the lowest rung on that wobbly ladder known as the list of graded American stakes.

The guilt welled. Could I have done something to have kept it from happening? Was there a way to save the reputation of a race won by La Zanzara, Bastonera, Track Robbery, and Flawlessly? A race won nine times by Charlie Whittingham, four times by Bobby Frankel, three times by Ron McAnally, and three times by Richard Mandela (four if you count Mandella’s Guinness-worthy dead heat in the 1990 running with Beautiful Melody and Reluctant Guest, when the Beverly Hills was rated Grade 1)?

Short of infiltrating the grading committee and dropping Jimmy Kilroe bombs, probably not.

Railing against the flawed logic, dicey interpretation of data, and resultant injustices of the graded race system has occupied way too much of the space allotted your correspondent through the years. I’ve gone from caring way too much to weary resignation. Anyway, the system is so entrenched by now in its various misapplications that to discard it would shake too many trees, and to attempt a reform would serve no purpose, other than to slather another layer of makeup on the face of a rotting dowager.

The graded race system was established to give European customers a better line on the quality of races listed in American sales catalogs. At least that what it says right there on the website of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, who run the thing.

But like Lasix, which was introduced as a reasonable veterinary tool for the treatment of significant bleeders, the graded race system has mutated beyond its original intent and now coils around every branch of the business. Leave it to us Americans to run a decent idea into the ground.

On its face, the system would appear to be essentially harmless, except when it’s not. Except when it determines the races in which jockeys can compete while on suspension, or which horses gain entry to the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup races and which do not, or how some journalists decide upon their coverage, or racetracks their advertising budgets.

The history of the grading of the Beverly Hills provides a stark example of how the system works, or doesn‘t. Its first five modern runnings as a distance turf race for fillies and mares took place before the graded race system was in place. Such significant stakes winners as Pink Pigeon, Manta, Typecast, Hill Circus, Miss Ribot and Pattee Canyon were among the 1-2-3 finishers in those early years, a record good enough to grandfather the Beverly Hills onto the first list of graded stakes with a sparkling “2” in 1973.

Because the Beverly Hills purse did not keep up with upward trends – it fell to $43,200 in 1977 -- after four years the race went on temporary probation. Enriched and rehabilitated, it resurfaced in 1979 as a “3” then regained is original Grade 2 status in 1982.

By 1988 the Beverly Hills was deemed worthy by the stakes committee of calling itself Grade 1. This, of course, was not news to those who had watched Estrapade, who beat the boys in the Arlington Million, Royal Heroine, who did the same in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, or Sangue, the winner of 11 stakes on turf and dirt, all win the Beverly Hills while it was only a deuce.

(Always remember, the grade of a race does not reflect the field competing in front of you, but rather fields that competed in prior years, a sort of institutionalized nostalgia.)

In 1996 the Beverly Hills shifted from nine to 10 furlongs. This, in theory, should have been a good thing. Improving the breed, and all that jazz. The longer terms served to enhance the already established talents of mares like Astra, Tranquility Lake, Keeper Hill, and Happyanunoit, but the numbers somehow didn’t add up to maintain the grade. Yes, there are fewer Thoroughbreds with superior ability over a mile and a quarter than a mile and an eighth. And yes, their breeding and nurture should be encouraged – unless you are the graded stakes committee.

So in 2003 the race was taken down a notch and then, seven years later, reduced to a Grade 3. Hollywood Park management responded with a sad shrug and cut the purse to the minimum Grade 3 requirement of $100,000, compared with $200,000 in 2005 and $300,000 as recently as 1998.

One of the worst side effects of the graded race system is giving racetracks cover for purse reductions. To its credit, Hollywood maintained a $200,000 Beverly Hills purse during part of its latest Grade 2 identity even though only $150,000 was required. But now, what’s the point? If a hundred grand is all it takes to buy a grading, write the check.

Sunday’s 46th running of the Beverly Hills has the look of an old-fashioned handicap. Malibu Pier and Cozi Rosie, a pair of fine red fillies, won all the best races at Santa Anita and have met three times since February, at eight, nine, and 10 furlongs. Cozi Rosie holds a 2-1 edge and carries a pound more as a reward, 120-119.

Of the others, Restless Soul has been chasing the top two without winning, while First Settler, Timezone and Streamline Baby are just the kind of up-and-comers a Grade 3, $100,000 event was designed to attract. It just never figured to be the Beverly Hills.