11/22/2002 1:00AM

Ten to decide what stakes make the grade


The process of ranking North America's graded stakes races is a complex, thankless, and often-criticized process. But the 10 people who make up the graded stakes committee will dive right in early next week in Lexington, Ky., when they determine the grades of races for 2003.

There are 10 members of the committee, which is overseen by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Association. There are five members of TOBA and five racing secretaries on the committee. The TOBA representatives are Steven Duncker, the committee's chair, as well as Rollin Baugh, Gary Biszantz, Dell Hancock, and Barry Schwartz. The racing secretaries are Larry Craft, Frank Gabriel, Mike Lakow, Tom Robbins, and Bob Umphrey. Craft was added this year, replacing the late Howard Battle.

They are the only ones who can vote, though the chairman is permitted to invite non-voting members to observe the process. For an individual to become eligible to be a voting member in subsequent years, he or she must have been an observer at a recent annual meeting.

According to Andy Schweigardt, the secretary of the graded stakes committee, there are 741 races eligible to be graded for 2003. At a conference room at Keeneland Race Course next Monday and Tuesday, those races will be ranked Grade 1, 2, 3, or ungraded.

The grade of many races are self-evident. The eight Breeders' Cup races, for instance, are Grade 1; the committee does not need to spend time discussing the merits of those races. The most contentious discussions focus around races that could be moved up a level, or down a level. Secret-ballot voting is conducted on those races following a discussion, oftentimes with a racing secretary on the committee having to defend his own track's race.

To help expedite that process, committee members receive a computer printout of each stakes race that includes the field for the past five years, as well as numerical ratings.

One rating, produced by the five-member North American Ratings Committee, attempts to quantify the quality of each year's race. The members - currently Gabriel, Lakow, and Robbins, as well as Chris Evans and Martin Panza - are all racing secretaries. Each assigns a numerical rating to each stakes race. They compare their ratings, and then have a roundtable discussion to come up with a number on which they all agree - referred to as an NARC rating. A system similar to the NARC ratings is what most countries around the world use to rank their graded, or group, stakes.

The other rating is called quality points. There is no human element involved in this rating. Horses are assigned points for winning graded stakes - such as six points for being a Grade 1 winner - and those points carry forward to subsequent starts. So, for instance, if three Grade 1 winners meet in a Grade 1 race, that race would get 18 quality points.

Reliance on quality points has been a subject of controversy, because they have the potential to result in a self-perpetuating cycle. For instance, because New York has three Grade 1 stakes for 2-year-old males, quality points can add up quickly if different horses win each race. In California, which has only one Grade 1 stakes for 2-year-old males, that isn't the case.

Asked if the quality points could lead to self-perpetuation, Schweigardt said, "Absolutely, but the committee is well-aware of that."

"We've spent a lot of time trying to get away from that and change it," Duncker said.

Another aspect of the quality points that some consider questionable is that once a horse wins a Grade 1 race, he is assigned Grade 1 quality points for all subsequent starts. So, if a horse wins a Grade 1 race at age 2, but by age 5 has gone on a three-year losing streak, he still would be assigned Grade 1 quality points to the races in which he competes.

"We're always trying to find a better way," Duncker said. "We use the NARC points and the quality points as a guide, but I think the best thing is to look at the fields. Who's in the field? That's especially important for races that are on the cusp of going up or down. I look at the fields more than the points, but I do think it's important to get the numbers as good as we can get them."