12/04/2008 12:00AM

Some dissent among stakes ranks


Now that every pundit and his or her brother has weighed in on the meager pros and ghastly cons of the recently released list of American graded stakes for 2009, it's my turn.


It's not that I don't have an opinion. Opinions about the American graded race system are like winter colds. Everybody's got one. And it's not that there are better things to complain about, although there are. A broadly accepted method of rating America's best races can be useful. Of course, most fans know which races are which already.

That is why it is easy to sympathize with the protests this time around. I mean, how can the Jamaica be such hot stuff when the Kingston doesn't make the list and the Bahamas isn't even around any more? There is historical balance in elevating the Nashua to the same level as the Swaps - even though their match race result was bogus - and it has been extremely awkward for Californians to explain that the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar was inferior to the Clement Hirsch during Oak Tree. That's fixed, and the Hirsch family sends its thanks. But no way you could put Pat O'Brien in the same boat as Bing Crosby, except maybe when they both played priests.

"The purpose of the American Graded Stakes Committee is to provide owners and breeders of Thoroughbred horses a reliable guide to the relative quality of Thoroughbred bloodstock by identifying those U.S. races whose recent renewals have consistently attracted the highest quality competition. . . . Horses winning these graded races may reliably be considered as superior racing stock, and the breeding stock producing them as superior breeding stock."

See? It is a tool for breeders, buyers, and sellers, and there never has been a more noble quest. Of course, even the Crusades went wrong. The progenitors of the graded race system could not have foreseen the scattered uses to which their honest labor has been been applied, among them:

1. Access to the fields for premier events.

2. Exceptions to jockey suspensions.

3. Eclipse Award championships.

4. Advertising campaigns.

5. Dessert topping.

6. Floor wax.

Sorry about those last two. In its own defense, TOBA offers a disclaimer when it comes to peripheral uses of its work.

"Broad acceptance of the graded stakes system allows its potential use for promotional and other purposes," states the site. "While the Committee recognizes that individuals and organizations may utilize grading for purposes beyond the Committee's own, such uses play no role in the grading process."

Broadly accepted or not, I stopped taking the graded race system seriously a long time ago, shortly after I found out how the sausage was made (a Grade 1 race must have a certain number of Grade 1 winners, which become Grade 1 winners by competing in Grade 1 races - take it from there). This decision saved thousands of keystrokes.

No longer was it necessary to explain how the 1989 John Henry Handicap in which Steinlen finished second was rendered a grade lower in 1990 when Steinlen, reigning as male turf champion, finished third to subsequent Arlington Million winner Golden Pheasant. Or how the 1989 Apple Blossom won by Bayakoa was a superior race compared with the 1990 version of the Apple Blossom, in which she finished second, while the 1989 Santa Maria Handicap, which Bayakoa lost, was increased in stature for the 1990 running, which she won.

You can't make this stuff up. But it can be explained at length, by use of the American Graded Stakes Committee's formulas, which also include a ration of subjective input.

In the meantime, emboldened by the popularity of its system, TOBA has begun beefing up its demands for admission to the Grade 1 club. They require a minimum purse and heightened drug testing, while at the same time they are toying with disincentives for handicaps in favor of weight-for-age conditions. Without standards, there would be cultural chaos, which is why the requirements for all Grade 1 events should be tweaked even further. A few modest suggestions:

* A Grade 1 race must be nationally televised. TVG, HRTV, and CNBC do not count, although the committee would look favorably on any appearance by Kenny Mayne.

* There must be a premium giveaway on the day a Grade 1 race is run - tube socks, sun block, hammers, etc. TOBA will publish a list of acceptable items.

* A race will lose its Grade 1 status if there are more than 40 people in the winner's circle.

The committee took heat this time around for increasing the number of Grade 1 races, to I think around 4,500. And while I don't care, I would suggest it did the right thing. Grade 1 races attract a lot more media attention. Trainers dress better for Gradeo1 events, and owners show up. Sometimes a racetrack even will add a bugler or two for the call to the post for a Grade 1 event. And as everyone knows, you can never have enough buglers.