12/03/2004 12:00AM

Grass needs some trimming

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The American Graded Stakes Committee showed general good sense and admirable restraint in its announcement last week of grades for the 2005 stakes schedule. Yet the official lineup of the nation's most important racing still seems at odds with some realities of the sport.

The number of Grade 1 races will remain at the same tidy 100 as in 2004, with a single intrastate swap on the roster - the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita joins the list while the Milady Handicap at Hollywood descends from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2. The latter category also remains unchanged in the aggregate with 159 Grade 2's again scheduled for 2005, while the number of Grade 3's will decline from 221 to 208. The net loss of 13 graded stakes is appropriate as the committee wisely continues to chip away at the unjustified and widespread upgrading of so many races a decade ago.

The problem with the list of 100 Grade 1 races that defines the best of American racing lies not in any specific recent decision but in two longstanding biases that combine to create a disconnect. The list suggests that there is a great deal of very important high-quality grass racing in this country, and that speed and sprinting are held in low regard, especially among younger horses. In fact, much of this country's top-rated grass racing is severely overrated, and our best sprinters have far too few opportunities to be rightly recognized as the world's fastest Thoroughbreds.

The Kilroe-for-Milady swap means that 32 of next year's 100 Grade 1 races will be grass events, believed to be a record level, and one that is even higher if you eliminate 2-year-old racing, since there are no Grade 1's on the grass for juveniles. Take out the 3-year-olds as well, and nearly half of the Grade 1 races for older horses in this country are now grass races. Grass racing continues to make similar gains at the Grade 2 and 3 levels: Next year, 48 of the 159 Grade 2's and 88 of the 208 Grade 3's are turf races.

Meanwhile, sprints continue to make up the vast majority of American racing while occupying a diminishing number of top-grade events. There are 32 Grade 1 grass races next year but only 16 Grade 1's of any kind at less than a mile. Of those 16, nine are for older males, and there is only one Grade 1 race for 2-year-old males and one for 3-year-old males at under a mile - the Hopeful and King's Bishop, both at Saratoga. The lone remaining Grade 1 for 2-year-old fillies at under a mile is the Del Mar Debutante.

We all want to see horses bred for both speed and stamina, but there seems to be an ongoing reluctance to give sprinters Grade 1 recognition, especially outside the older-male ranks, as evidenced by a severe imbalance between Grade 1 and 2 races in some divisions. There are just three Grade 1 races for older sprinting fillies - the Ballerina, Humana Distaff, and Santa Monica - but nine such Grade 2 events. The 3-year-old males have only the King's Bishop as a Grade 1 goal but have seven Grade 2 sprints.

Those splits need adjustment, and probably at the expense of the bloated list of Grade 1 grass races. We run dozens of long grass races in this country and pretend that they are as good and important as similar races on the dirt, yet many of the winners are simply second-rate horses who failed on the dirt. They usually prove to be uncompetitive with true grass champions from Europe, and are often busts at stud, as they possessed neither speed nor genuine quality.

Rather than pretending that the Shoemaker Mile is as important as the Santa Anita Handicap, or that the Manhattan is the equivalent of the Woodward, the Graded Stakes Committee may want to consider whether it is time for a reset of the overall allocation of Grade 1 grass races.

The committee took no specific action on its worthy goal of reducing the number of Grade 1 races run under handicap conditions, currently 38 of 100, saying it is working with the small number of individual tracks that host them to lobby for change. Executives at the New York Racing Association and Magna Entertainment tracks have said repeatedly that they support making all but a handful of their Grade 1 races weight-for-age events, but as yet have announced no changes for 2005. What's the holdup?