12/07/2016 2:06PM

Hovdey: Three Grade 1 races caught in a Catch-22

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There should be very little sympathy for those railing against the downgrading of the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Mother Goose on the list for 2017 released this week by the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. To take offense at such perceived slights is to admit that you take the list seriously in the first place.

But people do, and to cop an attitude tends to bring civilized discussion to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately, the deeply flawed but thoroughly institutionalized system of grading races has become so badly misinterpreted and misused that to nitpick at this point about a trio of iconic events seems a sad waste of time.

So, let’s waste some time together.

When pressed, proponents of the system describe it as the best bad solution to what is a necessary categorization of the races most American owners, breeders, trainers, and jockeys would prefer to win anyway, graded or not.

A search of the TOBA website will take the enterprising reader to a page entitled “Explanation of Grading System Workbook.” I won’t dwell on specifics other than to note once again that three-quarters of the data helping to determine the grading of races are derived from the performances of horses in races already graded by the American Graded Stakes Committee.

Embarrassed by this admission of a closed informational loop, the website offers an apology, sort of:

“… the Committee recognizes that these measurements tend to support the self-perpetuation of graded events, an effect that can compromise the evaluation process while magnifying the consequences of all grading decisions.” Ya think?

The fourth leg of data is comprised of Timeform-style performance ratings (NARC Rates). Numbers gleaned from the Thoro-Graph handicapping figures also are considered. Again, the site feels compelled to equivocate:

“ … the Committee recognizes that NARC Rates are wholly dependent on the fallible methods and art of a small group of racing professionals.”

In the end, the industry is given reassurance that the 11 members of the American Graded Stakes Committee are wise and just and true, and that the grading process “must finally depend on the integrity, experience, and judgment of the Committee members themselves.”

So, there you go. Faulty data in, faulty data out, leaving it to the 11 people who this time around decided that the Mother Goose, Wood Memorial, and Blue Grass were no longer to be considered among America’s elite events. Eight votes are required to elevate a race in graded rank, while only six are necessary for demotion.

Those currently on the committee include its chairman, Dr. J. David Richardson, a Louisville surgeon; Reynolds Bell Jr., of Reynolds Bell Thoroughbred Services in Lexington; Everett Dobson, part owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder; Barbara Banke, owner of Stonestreet Farm; Craig Bernick, president of Glen Hill Farm; J. Michael O’Farrell, owner of Ocala Stud, and five racing department heads – Martin Panza (NYRA), Tom Robbins (Del Mar), Rick Hammerle (Santa Anita), Georganne Hale (Maryland Jockey Club), and Ben Huffman (Churchill Downs).

Any time spent in a room with these industry heavyweights would be a treat. Pity them for their task, however, as they wade through a mountain of dicey data whose only purpose seems to be self-justification. Integrity and wisdom go only so far in the face of such a daunting challenge. As a result …

Races are graded backward but penalize forward. The system trashes the histories of respected events while failing to take into consideration the modern shift in stakes-horse management. No fewer than 16 of the 107 Grade 1 ratings for 2017 are wasted on Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events, as if we need to be told. The graded race system meddles in the business of racetracks by imposing purse requirements, just as graded designations are put to all manner of uses for which they were not intended.

The graded race system also has rewarded a racetrack for paying appearance fees to select owners and trainers above and beyond purse money. Hello, brand-new Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby, with your noncompetitive September date and your $50,000 bonuses to participating owners and trainers whose horses have won the Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, or Travers.

It is no surprise that the Blue Grass and the Wood Memorial have had depth-of-quality issues in recent years. The maniacal rush to make the Kentucky Derby field has diluted all the major 3-year-old races of the late winter and early spring, now clustered in a window four, five, or six weeks in advance of the first Saturday in May.

The fate of the Wood is a direct result of Gulfstream’s intense competition for the best of the Eastern colts, and its earlier date puts bad Northeastern weather more often into play. As for the Blue Grass, Keeneland made its own bed by temporarily surrendering its marquee event to the Polytrack experiment. Recovery is still in progress.

The American Graded Stakes Committee would like to believe that its ratings are without consequences, that they are merely a dispassionate recognition of the facts on the ground. In reality, its decisions reverberate throughout the game.

In 2016, both the Wood and the Blue Grass were worth $1 million and presented on the same day. What would the committee have them do to improve their product and regain the Grade 1 status their history merits? More money? More incentives?

Or perhaps move them to September.