04/19/2007 12:00AM

Panel right to deny grading to races

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NEW YORK - It is tempting to agree with the first wave of public and industry reaction to the American Graded Stakes Committee's unanimous decision to deny Grade 1 status to the three new Breeders' Cup races being offered Oct. 26 at Monmouth: Who are these Blue Meanies at the AGSC? How can they let a Breeders' Cup race be run as an ungraded event? How can million-dollar races that might affect Eclipse Award championships be rated lower than routine $100,000 Grade 3 events of no national consequence? Isn't it an embarrassing symptom of a dysfunctional racing industry that it won't bestow a minor certification on its newest major events?

While such thoughts are understandable, they miss the key point: The AGSC made a correct decision by refusing to sacrifice the integrity of the grading system at the altar of promotion.

The committee's standard operating procedure is to require that a race be run in two consecutive years under similar conditions before being considered for graded status. Even a race as obvious an instant Grade 1 as Hollywood's American Oaks, which was sure to fill a huge void on the racing calendar and attract an international Grade 1 field at its moment of inception, had to wait its turn. So, too, have rich races below the Grade 1 level, such as the Colonial Turf Cup and some slots-fueled juvenile events.

The AGSC has deviated from this standard only twice: In 1984, when the inaugural seven Breeders' Cup races were granted immediate Gradeo1 status, and again in 1999 when the Filly and Mare Turf was added to the Cup Day lineup and given a Grade 1 for its first edition. It was reasonable to make the exception for the initial Cup races and then when an eighth race, sure to draw a Grade 1 field and directly linked to an Eclipse category, was added to the same racing card.

Breeders' Cup Ltd., however, got overly ambitious by asking that the same be done this year for all three of its new Friday races, the Filly and Mare Sprint, Dirt Mile, and Juvenile Turf. They aren't part of the Breeders' Cup Day card, but more importantly, it's not clear that the latter two will attract legitimate Grade 1 fields or have any bearing on the sport's championships. The Dirt Mile won't even be run at its intended one-turn mile distance this year due to Monmouth's track configuration, and may well turn out to be a consolation two-turn route race for Grade 2 and 3 handicap horses a notch below Breeders' Cup Classic caliber.

The Turf Juvenile is an even more troublesome candidate for instant Grade 1 status. The race is a peculiar event that seems intended largely to attract foreign horses, since there is no program of American graded stakes racing for 2-year-olds on the grass leading up to it. There's a good argument to be made that the race should not have been instituted until such a program existed, if there is in fact a legitimate need or demand for one, but to make this race a Grade 1 would have been absurd.

The flip side is that it's nearly as absurd that the Filly and Mare Sprint will not be a Grade 1 race. It has plenty of Grade 1 preps leading up to it and will be the crowning event in the new Eclipse Award category for champion filly sprinter. Unfortunately, the Breeders' Cup created an all-or-nothing situation by overreaching and requesting Grade 1 status for all three races. Perhaps the committee could have granted a Grade 1 to the one deserving race while holding off on the other two - which is what Breeders' Cup should have applied for in the first place - but this would have left it without a consistency argument and put it in the position of suggesting that two of the new races have serious problems. It also would have had trouble justifying future denials to non-Cup races whose presenters wanted immediate grading.

"With the Filly and Mare Sprint, the committee felt it had the strongest case," said Andy Schweigardt, executive secretary of the AGSC, "but if we were not going to grant Grade 1 status to the other two, they felt like they should be consistent in applying the rule."

In this case, nothing was better than all because one mistake is better than two.