12/01/2004 12:00AM

Graded ranks dip for '05


LEXINGTON, Ky. - There will be 13 fewer graded stakes on the United States racing calendar in 2005, but there will be one new Grade 1 event: the Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap at Santa Anita.

Those were some of the changes coming out of the American Graded Stakes Committee's grading session here Tuesday. The committee reviewed 742 unrestricted stakes races with purses of $75,000 or more and assigned grades to 467 of those. Only seven races were upgraded in status, including the Kilroe Mile Handicap, which rose from a Grade 2. Eleven races were moved from ungraded to Grade 3 status.

Twenty-six races were downgraded, including the Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park, which dropped from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2 event.

The committee, which consists of five racing secretaries and five members of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, considers statistical information gleaned from the charts of the races' last five runnings to determine each event's quality from year to year. An important factor is the combined number of graded stakes victories a race's entrants have, according to the committee's chairman, Steve Duncker. Races with larger purses stand a better chance of improving their status, because those purses will attract the most accomplished runners.

Among the upgrades were two notable examples of the effect purse size can have on a race's class. The Delta Jackpot, a $1 million race for juveniles over 1 1/16 miles at Delta Downs, rose from ungraded to Grade 3 for 2005. So did Hollywood's Jim Murray Memorial Handicap on turf, which raised its purse from $75,000 to $400,000 in 2003. The race carried a $350,000 purse this year.

Conversely, the upgraded Kilroe has had its purse drop for two consecutive runnings. Valued at $400,000 in 2003, it was run for $350,000 this year and is scheduled to have a $300,000 purse in 2005.

In recent months, members of the graded stakes committee have pushed racing jurisdictions to adopt the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's drug-testing protocol for graded stakes in order to keep their races' grades. Committee members also have called for changing Grade 1 handicap races to weight-for-age events. But Duncker said that neither topic was discussed at this year's grading session.

"The meeting we had yesterday was not a policy meeting," Duncker said. "We didn't discuss drug-testing protocols or whether Grade 1 races should be handicaps or not."

Committee member Dell Hancock, of the owners and breeders group, said she expects that the drug-testing protocol for graded stakes, delayed from a planned 2004 debut because not all jurisdictions were prepared to implement it, would take effect in 2005.

On the matter of Grade 1 handicaps, Duncker said the committee was continuing discussions with racetracks and "trying to get them to see that these races can be run as profitably and with a more level playing field as weight-for-age races."

The De La Rose and Ft. Lauderdale handicaps at Gulfstream Park and the New Hampshire Sweepstakes Handicap at Rockingham Park, all formerly Grade 3 stakes, were not eligible for grading in 2005 because they were not run in 2004. The Forest Hills Handicap at Belmont Park, formerly a Grade 2, also was not run this year and therefore not eligible for grading in 2005.