01/01/2016 10:18AM

Simon: Routing in top company yields racing's best purses


The money and glory is in running long. That’s what the purse structure in North America says, and the American Graded Stakes Committee tells a similar story by the way it awards grades to stakes.

If you’re an owner who wants to win a lot of money, get a horse that can perform at their best in races at a mile or longer. If you’re an owner who wants to win graded stakes, you really better have a horse that can run at the top level in races at a mile or longer.

A few weeks ago, the American Graded Stakes Committee released its list of graded races in the United States for 2016, and the schedule strongly favors horses who can run a distance of ground in top company.

For example, in graded races for 3-year-olds of both sexes, a compelling 82.4 percent are at one mile or farther. Of the 142 Grade 1, 2, and 3 stakes for 3-year-olds this year, just 25 are at a distance of less than a mile. Put another way, there are exactly as many Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds at a mile or longer as there are total graded races for 3-year-olds at less than a mile.

The emphasis on awarding grades to stakes at a distance of ground at a much higher percentage than sprints is the same in the other age categories: 66 percent of all graded races for 2-year-olds are at a mile or longer; 75.5 percent of all graded races for 3-year-olds and up are at a mile or longer.

That structure also is reflected in the purse distribution in North America. In 2014, there were 44,484 races on the flat, and 65 percent were at less than a mile, but they distributed just 54 percent of the purses. The 17 percent of the races at more than a mile distributed 28 percent of all purse money. A mile was the line of demarcation, generally speaking, in terms of averages for purses. In 2014, the average purse in North America was $26,225, with the average purse at a flat mile being $25,943. Average purse for all races at less than a mile was $21,777, while the average purse in race at more than a mile was almost exactly twice as much, $43,447.

The emphasis of quality at a distance should be applauded as the overemphasis on precocity and speed have done nothing to improve the soundness of the breed – the number of starts per runner has decreased every decade for more than a half-century. Some, of course (like yours truly), have blamed the use of medications as one of the reasons the soundness of the breed has declined, but there are a number of factors that go into the equation, with pedigree, conformation, training, and track condition, among others, playing a part.

Sprints also place more stress on horses as they have to break fast from the gate and run hard from the start to the finish as opposed to being allowed to settle into a stride and get their legs under them as they can in route races.

Sprints clearly have their place in the game, but for my money, races at routes are more interesting, take some of the racing luck out of the equation, and are better tests of the makeup of a Thoroughbred.

The release of graded races from the American Graded Stakes Committee also shows that despite the number of total races having declined in the last quarter-century, the number of graded races has held steady throughout and actually has increased its share of total races. Some international interests have traditionally not been fans of that development, since black type in catalogs, and graded black type in particular, is a strong selling point if it appears in the immediate female family for any weanling, yearling, or 2-year-old being offered at auction and particularly meaningful if the mare herself has earned graded brackets and is being offered as a broodmare or broodmare prospect. When buyers, foreign or domestic, purchase horses at auction, black type is often one of the most powerful criteria at play in terms of price paid.

In 2014, there were 455 graded U.S. races and 43 Canadian graded races, for a total of 498, or 1.12 percent of all races in North America. In 2016, there are 464 graded races in the United States, with Canada expected to announce its graded races in January.

By comparison, in 2004, there were a total of 518 graded races (480 in the United States and 38 in Canada) and 58,858 total races in North America, meaning 0.88 percent of all races were graded. In 1994, three were 467 graded races and 70,699 total races, yielding 0.66 percent graded races.

In 1989, the height of the number of races ever held in North America, there were 443 graded races and 81,400 total races, yielding 0.54 percent graded races. That means in 2014 there were 12.4 percent more graded stakes in North America than in 1989, but there are 45.4 percent fewer races now being run.

Foreigners are no doubt up in arms about that, too, but hold all tickets.

While the number of graded races seems historically high, the percent of races is actually low compared to other major racing countries. In 2014, the percentage of group stakes to total races for major European racing centers were as follows: Great Britain, 2.3 percent group stakes to total races; Ireland, 5.9 percent; France, 2.4 percent, and Germany, 3.3 percent. In the Pacific Rim, Japan was the strictest in awarding grades, with just 0.8 percent of its total races being group events. In Oceana, Australia had 2.7 percent group stakes to total races, and New Zealand was at 2.9 percent.

In any event, the object is to get a horse that can run in a graded stakes, because they pay well regardless of distance. In 2014, graded stakes in North America offered an average purse of $208,468, or eight times the overall average for the continent. Grade 1 races had an average purse of $426,799.

May the force be with all racehorse owners to get a horse to run in a Grade 1 race this year.