11/28/2008 12:00AM

Nonstop stakes upgrading defies logic


NEW YORK - Is American racing producing more and more outstanding races and horses each and every year? Common sense says no, but the American Graded Stakes Committee apparently disagrees: It designated 100 races as Grade 1 events just three years ago for the 2006 racing year, and increased that number to 107 in 2007 and 110 in 2008. The 2009 gradings, announced earlier this week, kicked the number up to 115 for next year.

While some the individual decisions are questionable, and we'll get to a few of those in a minute, the real problem here is the size of the forest rather than the choice of trees. There is simply no defensible rationale for saying that we're running 15 percent more races of the highest importance than we were just three years ago.

By every reasonable measure, American racing at all levels has contracted, not expanded, over the last generation. The U.S. Thoroughbred foal crop was 45,245 in 1988 - it will be about 34,000 this year. The total number of races has shrunk from about 75,000 to 50,000 during that period of time.

Horses are making fewer starts per year, field size continues to decrease, divisional leaders are increasingly kept apart until year's end, and more and more of the cream of the yearling crop is being purchased for foreign racing. The only real growth segments are for statebreds likelier to race in restricted rather than Grade 1 company.

All these factors taken together would suggest we should be decreasing rather than increasing the number of Grade 1 races. At the very least, the number should be held at something like 100 until there is a shred of evidence that we're producing more and better horses who require an increase in the number of opportunities to be stamped the best of the best.

The Graded Stakes Committee takes its work seriously and puts a lot of time and effort into its deliberations, but seems to fall victim to its own complex formulas for determining the quality of races. The major philosophical flaw in its methodology is the assumption that a race that produces a number of future Grade 1 winners is automatically a candidate for upgrading.

The problem here is that this ignores the concept of a lesser prep race that leads to a more definitive event. The worst example of the committee's slavishness in this regard was when it briefly made the Fountain of Youth a Grade 1 race a few years ago, because it had produced so many winners of the Grade 1 Florida Derby. They fixed that one, but many other recent upgrades have created seemingly endless series of Grade 1 races within divisions. Every time that open older females line up in New York or Southern California, it seems they're competing for Grade 1 honors rather than having a Grade 3 lead to a Grade 2 and finally to a Grade 1.

One of the races upgraded for next year is the Pat O'Brien Handicap, which went from a Grade 2 to a Grade 1 largely because it usually attracts much of the the same cast as the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at the same Del Mar meet. Another new Grade 1 for 2009 is Keeneland's Madison Stakes, seemingly because Ventura won it last year and because it's a prep for the Grade 1 Humana Distaff at Churchill a month later. If the committee continues to follow this pattern and decides that we need a Grade 1 race every month in each of 14 racing divisions on the three major circuits, it will just continue to increase the number of Grade 1's each year to the point of completely devaluing the designation.

Then there are races that are simply being overrated. The Jamaica Handicap at Belmont, kicked upstairs to a Grade 1 next year, is an October turf race restricted to 3-year-olds. There are no Grade 1 main-track races for 3-year-old males in the fall for a very good reason: That's when the best of the crop is supposed to start taking on their elders. The best grass 3-year-olds should be doing the same. Giving them their own Grade 1 race not only dresses up their credentials in misleading fashion, but also will serve as a disincentive for them to participate in the legitimate Grade 1 grass races against older horses.

Increasing the number of Grade 1 races run each year, while the number of horses and races is going in the other direction, ultimately amounts to printing up more currency and flooding the market with it: It's inflation, and it just makes each real Grade 1 race worth less than it was.