05/17/2013 3:16PM

Jay Hovdey: Hollywood graded stakes up for grabs


Among the items in the Hollywood Park garage sale that will take place at some point after the track says sayonara in December will be a prime collection of 37 graded stakes events of all colors, shapes, and sizes.

Think of them as classic vinyl, the album sleeves a little worn, waiting to be Spotified for a new generation.

The Hollywood Gold Cup is the cherry on the sundae, but of no less importance to both the California circuit and the national schedule are races like the American Oaks, the Triple Bend, the CashCall Futurity, the Hollywood Derby, the Matriarch, the Gamely, the Vanity, the Starlet, and the Shoemaker Mile.

For what it’s worth, those 10 precious gems are the Hollywood Park races currently identified by the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association as Grade 1 events. Write that in sand, because the AGSC is a fickle bunch that changes its mind more often than Steinbrenner fired his managers.

Of no less importance – I know this because they once were rated Grade 1 – are such Hollywood events as the A Gleam for top sprinting females, the Citation and the Whittingham Memorial for the best middle distance turf horses, and the Californian at nine furlongs on the main for all comers.

These races, or races like them, must be saved for use somewhere on the revised California calendar that will be announced later this month and make its debut in 2014, when most of Hollywood Park’s current dates are absorbed by either Santa Anita Park or Del Mar. The racing departments of those tracks have been led to believe by the Graded Stakes Committee that gradings can be grandfathered in, as long as the races retain a semblance of their traditional personalities. This is good news. Santa Anita and Del Mar can put up all the money in the world in stakes adorning their expanded 2014 schedules, but if graded ratings are not attached there is considerably less incentive for stables with top horses to maintain a presence in California, or send the occasional runner West to enhance both pocketbook and prestige.

“There was a discussion about it at the April meeting of the graded stakes committee,” said committee secretary Andy Schweigardt. “On a case by case basis they’ll review the specific circumstances, but basically the rule states that to retain a grade they have to stay in the same region, have the same name, essentially the same conditions, calendar date, and purse.”

Precedents abound. When Atlantic City scaled back from its major meet Monmouth Park picked up the United Nations Handicap and the Matchmaker with their grades intact. Hawthorne rescued the Illinois Derby when Sportsman’s Park closed. Hialeah’s historic Widener once found a brief home at Gulfstream Park.

There is also reasonable wiggle room in those rules, Schweigardt noted, as long as a race is not completely uprooted from the calendar or substantively altered in conditions. As far as names go, Santa Anita Park already busted that flush when it rechristened a host of major events formerly run during the Oak Tree fall meet and retained their grades.

“There’s precedent, yes, but not for the move of the almost 40 graded races Hollywood has,” Schweigardt said. “I would think before grades are assigned for 2014 stakes the committee will want to have something as definitive as possible.”

California racing chiefs Tom Robbins, Rick Hammerle, and David Jerkens are poised to divvy up the Hollywood spoils as soon as they get the green light.

“We can’t really make plans until the dates for next year are set,” said Hammerle, Santa Anita’s director of racing. “With the shrinking foal crops it stands to reason that there should be fewer graded races anyway, and I’m of the thinking that it’s better to have fewer graded races worth more money. I can see retaining maybe 27 of the 37 graded races and trying to make them really attractive.”

More often than not it is the graded stakes committee that triggers contraction, and there’s nothing a racetrack can do about it. One of the most recent Hollywood Park casualties was the Railbird Stakes, which will be run for the 51st time on Sunday without interruption or alteration of its seven-furlong conditions.

The race was named for the track-sponsored club of early morning racing fans who gathered, where else, at the grandstand rail to enjoy the view, be entertained by racing personalities, and call themselves genuine Hollywood Park Railbirds. There is still a Railbird Club, sponsored by TVG, which convenes each Sunday morning during the meet.

The first Railbird Stakes, in 1963, was open to both genders and won by Well Ordered for King Ranch and Hall of Famer Buddy Hirsch. Since then the race has been for 3-year-old fillies exclusively.

And what fillies they’ve been. The Railbird winners have included champion Turkish Trousers, Breeders’ Cup winner Very Subtle, and a long list of major stakes winners ranging from Morgaise, Impressive Style, Sandy Blue, Modus Vivendi, Hail Hilarious, and Taisez Vous through the end of the 1970’s, to more recent winners like Melair, Imaginary Lady, Olympic Charmer, Golden Ballet. and Buffythecenterfold.

For its 2013 running the Railbird was unceremoniously dropped from the list of graded races. It is now referred to as a listed race, which as a category has all the appeal of a hairball, while at the same time giving management the option to reduce its purse below the level required for a Grade 3 event, which it did, to $70,000.

This being the last Railbird, we’ll pause for a moment of reflection as Sunday’s field of six goes postward. John Sadler can’t be blamed if he thinks he has the favorite in Iotapa, last seen finishing second to champion Beholder in the Santa Anita Oaks, while Ciao Bella Luna, who began her career in style with the late Dennis Patterson, has found a happy place with Jerry Hollendorfer and won the Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland to show it.

There is also the flashy maiden winner Tres Belle from the Bob Baffert tribe, and Think Sunshine, who will need to step up her solid Northern California game. Hail Mary’s Cal-bred credentials let her run for an extra $21,000 in purse money, and finally there is Irish Presence, clearly named for trainer Eoin Harty, who was on a two-win roll before finishing well back in the Beaumont.

One of them will be the last winner of the Railbird.