11/07/2003 12:00AM

Upgrading weak British stakes is folly


NEW YORK - The British Horseracing Board, in conjunction with the European Pattern Race Committee, has just pulled off a coupe de course designed to stem the flow of fillies and mares from Europe, and especially England, to the United States.

At the recently completed annual meeting of the European Pattern Race Committee, the British Horseracing Board team, led by Ruth Quinn, managed to have seven stakes races for fillies and mares in England upgraded. That none of those seven deserved upgrading is one thing, but that the BHB, working at the behest of Ascot Racecourse, could convince the committee to create a brand-new one-mile race for older fillies at Royal Ascot at the Group 2 level threatens the legitimacy of the committee and the system of international controls that determines the status of black-type races.

The backroom maneuvers of the BHB at the Pattern Race Committee are a recent manifestation. Until last year, European stakes races were reviewed on a rolling three-year basis. If during that period a given race had improved measurably, it would be considered for upgrading. In 2002, the BHB convinced its laissez-faire colleagues on the Pattern Race Committee from France, Germany, and Italy to upgrade 10 British stakes. Like this year's seven upgraded races, none of them was worthy of the honor, least of all the low-end Scottish Classic, which was upgraded from a Group 3 to a Group 2 along with a name change to the Scottish Derby.

This year the BHB has taken the low road to higher status for such undeserving races as Newmarket's Falmouth Stakes, a one-mile event that is now a Group 1. The Falmouth was won this year as a Group 2 by the ex-handicap runner Macadamia, last year by listed-winner Tashawak, and in 2001 by German invader Proudwings, who had previously taken the Group 2 Prix du Muguet.

From that trio, only Proudwings would distinguish herself in quality company. She subsequently won the Group 1 Prix Jacques le Marois but was justifiably disqualified and placed fourth. She was up the track in the Group 2 Prix du Chemin de Fer du Nord, the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, and the Group 1 Hong Kong Mile.

Tashawak was seventh in her only other start, the Jacques le Marois, while Macadamia's best effort in three tries since her Falmouth victory was a second in the Group 2 Sun Chariot Stakes.

Most of the second- and third-place horses in those three Falmouths - Heavenly Whisper, Lady Lahar, Golden Silca, Kootenay, and Waldmark - are no better than average Group 3 types. Where then, does the European Pattern Race Committee get the idea that the Falmouth is a Group 1 race?

The answer lies in the BHB's stated policy of increasing the prestige of British races restricted to fillies and mares in an effort to make the sale of such horses to American buyers less attractive to their British owners. The British feel the pain caused by the hundreds of good horses they lose every year to American owners. But the BHB's scheming may ultimately backfire.

The reason so many British horses are sold to Americans has less to do with the prestige of British races than its does with the value of those races. A typical Group 2 in England goes for about $110,000, Group 3's for $85,000. Most British listed races are worth no more than $40,000, or $5,000 to $10,000 less than maiden races at Belmont, Keeneland, and Santa Anita.

So if a British owner is offered $200,000 by an American for a Group 3 or listed-type filly, he is going to jump at the chance. Accepting the deal is like having a Group 1 winner in the bank.

Also among upgraded British races is the Lancashire Oaks. Now a Group 2, this modest Haydock Park affair has been won since 2001 by Place Rouge, Mellow Park, and Sacred Song - hardly the sort one thinks of as Group 2 types. A similar rise has been awarded Doncaster's 1 13/16-mile Park Hill Stakes, whose last three winners are the unprepossessing Discreet Brief, Alexander Three D, and Ranin.

That the formerly listed Princess Elizabeth Stakes, Dahlia Stakes, Oak Tree Stakes, and Gladness Stakes are now Group 3's is a stretch, but the introduction of the new Royal Ascot race at the Group 2 level defies belief.

How can a race that doesn't even exist have Group 2 status? By contrast, Hollywood Park's American Oaks, won in its first two runnings by subsequent Grade 1 winners Megahertz and Dimitrova, is still ungraded.

It is, of course, the BHB's plan to keep out of American hands fillies like Megahertz, as well as American Oaks runners like Dublino and Alozaina and all of the ex-Europeans that run in the Del Mar Oaks, the Matriarch, and the Yellow Ribbon.

Rejiggering the system by which races are graded is not the way to do it. If the British want to keep more of their horses in England, they should devise ways of increasing prize money, something they have failed to do from the maiden level to the Group 3 level since the inception of the pattern race system in 1971.

What the BHB and the European Pattern Race Committee have done these past two years calls Europe's pattern race system into question. That has ramifications on the international level, especially where breeding is concerned.

It is time for the North American Graded Stakes Committee, the International Cataloguing Standards Committee, and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities to band together and call the British bluff.