02/15/2002 1:00AM

Just too easy to make the grade


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - I don't yet know who won Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, and I don't care if he goes on to win the Triple Crown. The fact that the winner will be credited with a Grade 1 victory is ridiculous.

This is not meant as a criticism of the Fountain of Youth, a nice race with a distinguished list of winners, but of the graded stakes system, which is increasingly bereft of common sense and integrity.

A very serious committee of owners, breeders, and racing officials with a very elaborate set of rules has been grading the best North American stakes races as Grade 1, 2, or 3 since 1974. There were 330 graded stakes that year, a number that has been steadily rising, with little justification, and is up to 486 this year. Even more alarming is the inflation in the number of Grade 1 events, which stood at 84 just four years ago but is up to 101 for 2002.

In 1998, those 84 Grade 1 races were 0.14 percent of the 61,293 races run in North America; one out of every 729 races was a Grade 1. In 2002, the 101 Grade 1 races will be 0.19 percent of the 54,000 or so races likely to be run, or one out of every 534 races.

Is racing quietly getting that much better?

The committee is knowledgeable and studious, but it seems to have been blinded to reality by its convoluted rules. The Fountain of Youth is a perfect example. By applying various complicated formulas to the performances of previous starters, the committee decided that the Fountain of Youth has been attracting a sufficient number of subsequent Grade 1 winners that the race deserved that ranking.

The problem is that everyone in the game understands that the Fountain of Youth is a prep for a prep (the Florida Derby) for the Kentucky Derby, not a Grade 1 event or prize in itself. It is one or two steps removed from a legitimate Grade 1 race. You can reasonably argue either side of whether the Florida Derby should be a Grade 1 race, but the Fountain of Youth has no logical claim.

Its numerical claim is flawed. The fact that young horses who run in a particular race later do well in more important races should not confer higher status back on the prep. The winner of the first maiden race of the Saratoga meeting (Macho Uno in 2000, Mayakovsky last year) often goes on to be a graded stakes horse, but that doesn't mean the maiden race should be graded. Every race that a legitimate Grade 1 horse wins should not retrospectively be viewed as a Grade 1 race.

Instead, the system becomes self-perpetuating. California's older fillies pointing for the big winter prize of the Santa Margarita Invitational usually run first in the shorter and less lucrative Santa Monica and Santa Maria. Instead of seeing these races as tiered in prestige and importance, the committee plays Santa Claus and deems them all Grade 1 events.

Who's going to complain? What owner or breeder is going to say that there are too many opportunities to hang Grade 1 credentials on a future broodmare whose offspring they will be selling at auction? What track's racing secretary is going to say he has too many Grade 1 races on his stakes schedule?

The whole situation makes the sport look silly and deceptive. The grading system is supposed to protect bloodstock purchasers and horseplayers by providing meaningful sales-catalog and past-performance information, but instead a savvy buyer or bettor now has to learn the difference between a real and a phony Grade 1 race.

A more practical problem is that the grading of stakes can determine qualifying berths in the Breeders' Cup, with Grade 1 victories or placings earning candidates more points than lesser events. With the optional slots increasingly filled by Europeans, a Classic berth could theoretically be decided by a victory in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth as opposed to a victory in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, Grade 2 Goodwood Handicap, or Grade 2 Suburban Handicap.

The solution is not to make all those races Grade 1's as well, but to knock down the Fountain of Youth and to stop increasing the number of Grade 1 races every year.