11/28/2003 12:00AM

Passing and failing grades

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The latest round of changes to the Grade 1 roster by the American Graded Stakes Committee last week had a little something to please or annoy just about everyone who puts on the sport's most important races. That's a sign that it did at least a few things right.

The committee changed the status of 36 stakes races, upgrading 17 while downgrading 19, including the elevation of four new Grade 1 races and the demotion of five previous Grade 1's to the Grade 2 level. That brings the number of Grade 1 races on the 2004 calendar down by one to an even 100, including the newly anointed Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, Bing Crosby at Del Mar, and Citation Handicap and American Oaks at Hollywood. Departing the Grade 1 ranks are the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, San Juan Capistrano and San Carlos at Santa Anita, the Spinaway at Saratoga, and the Futurity at Belmont.

For those keeping score at home, that's a net gain of one Grade 1 for California, a loss of two Grade 1's for New York, and the swap of a Florida race in favor of one from Kentucky. The corporate scorecard shows a gain of two Grade 1's for Churchill Downs Inc., one each for Del Mar and Keeneland, and losses of two for the New York Racing Association and three for Magna Entertainment.

The committee clearly did the right thing in downgrading the Fountain of Youth and the Capistrano, the worst party-crashers on the old list. The Fountain of Youth, a prep for a prep, should never have been a Grade 1. The Capistrano has simply not drawn legitimate Grade 1 fields in recent years. If you remember that Passanetti, All the Boys, and Champion Lodge ran one-two-three in it last April 20, you probably either own one of them or nailed the trifecta.

The downgrading of the Spinaway and Futurity are harder to swallow. Both races have produced dozens of champions and neither has exactly taken a nosedive lately. This year's Spinaway winner, Ashado, was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the last two Futurity winners, Whywhywhy and Cuvee, were favored in their Breeders' Cup Juveniles.

It is more of a reflection of what the Breeders' Cup has done to New York's juvenile stakes calendar over the last 20 years. Compacting three Grade 1 races for both colts (Hopeful, Futurity, and Champagne) and fillies (Spinaway, Matron, Frizette) in the eight weeks between Labor Day weekend and the Breeders' Cup has ensured that they don't all draw truly Grade 1 fields.

The impulse to downgrade one for each division was probably right, but the particulars are a bit strange. Now Labor Day weekend will feature a Grade 1 Hopeful and a Grade 2 Spinaway, reversed three weeks later with a Grade 2 Futurity and a Grade 1 Matron.

Of the new Grade 1's, the American Oaks and Breeders' Futurity were easy and deserving upgrades, while the Citation and Bing Crosby are straightforward swaps for the Capistrano and San Carlos. Reasonable people can debate whether the latter two upgrades were entirely necessary, but at least they're worthier Grade 1's than the Fountain of Youth and the Capistrano.

The changes, and the previous announcement by the committee that all Grade 1's must carry a minimum purse of $250,000 in 2004, sparked some quick changes in the stakes schedule for the upcoming Santa Anita meeting. Five of its Grade 1's that carried $200,000 purses have been sweetened by $50,000 apiece while the Capistrano and Strub were each cut from $400,000 to $300,000, and three minor ungraded races were scrapped.

Santa Anita acted graciously in complying with the new standards, especially since it lost two Grade 1's and is likely to suffer a few more downgrades in the years ahead, thanks to Magna's misplaced enthusiasm for the disruptive Sunshine Millions. Those ungraded races restricted to California- and Florida-breds offer much bigger purses than they need to and are sapping the quality from traditional fixtures such as the graded but poorer San Fernando, San Gorgonio, and Strub.

The Sunshine Millions races will never be graded stakes because restricted statebred events do not and should not qualify. Perhaps there's a little comfort there for the owners of horses not bred in those two states: They may be shut out of competing for over $3 million in purses that day, but it will be easier than usual to win what for now will still go down in the record books as Grade 2 stakes at Santa Anita this winter.