12/04/2016 12:10PM

Watchmaker: Wood, Blue Grass deserved downgrades, but Mother Goose did not

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Michael J. Marten
The last winner of the Wood Memorial to win the Kentucky Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

The decision to downgrade the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial to Grade 2 status in 2017, which was announced Friday by the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association, has elicited a visceral reaction in some quarters.

Right here, I think it’s important to note that these adjustments, and the downgrading of the Mother Goose from Grade 1 to Grade 2 and the upgrading of the Pennsylvania Derby from Grade 2 to Grade 1, are not part of a larger reset by the AGSC. There will be 464 graded stakes races in 2017, the same number as this year. And the 107 Grade 1 races in 2017 represent a net loss of only two.

Clearly, these Grade 1 stakes adjustments for 2017 were the result of a judgment call on the part of the AGSC.

I understand the inclination to rail against authority. I am part of a generation that made an art form of it. So while I’m naturally predisposed to protest moves like this, in the case of the downgrading of the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial, I can’t. I agree with these races being downgraded.

When you consider that the main function of the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial is to serve as prep races for the Kentucky Derby, it is impossible to avoid this fact: These two races have significantly underperformed over an extended period of time in comparison with the other major final Kentucky Derby preps – the Florida, Santa Anita, and Arkansas Derbies – which were left untouched by the UGSC.

Street Sense (2007), Thunder Gulch (1995), and Sea Hero (1993) emerged from losses in the Blue Grass to win the Kentucky Derby. However, the last actual winner of the Blue Grass to win the Derby was Strike the Gold all the way back in 1991. Moreover, the last winner of the Blue Grass to win any Triple Crown race was Prairie Bayou, winner of the Preakness back in 1993.

The Wood Memorial has performed only slightly better than the Blue Grass. While Funny Cide (2003) and Monarchos (2001) emerged from losses in the Wood to win the Derby (Funny Cide, of course, also won the Preakness), the last actual winner of the Wood to win the Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. And the last winner of the Wood to win any Triple Crown race was Empire Maker, who won the 2003 Belmont Stakes.

So to be crystal clear here, the last winner of the Blue Grass to win the Derby came 25 years ago, and the last winner of the Wood to win the Derby came 16 years ago. That’s simply too long when you see how the other major final Kentucky Derby preps have performed.

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Two Arkansas Derby winners who went on to do more than just win the Kentucky Derby – American Pharoah (2015) and Smarty Jones (2004) – won the Kentucky Derby since the last winner of the Wood also won the Derby, or since the last winner of the Blue Grass won the Derby. Also, Super Saver (2010) emerged from a loss in the Arkansas Derby to win the Kentucky Derby.

Two of the last five Santa Anita Derby winners went on to win the Kentucky Derby – California Chrome in 2014 and I’ll Have Another in 2012 (they both also went on to win the Preakness) – and Giacomo (2005) won the Kentucky Derby after a loss in the Santa Anita Derby.

Four of the last 11 Florida Derby winners won the Kentucky Derby – Nyquist (this year), Orb (2013), Big Brown (2008), and Barbaro (2006).

To put it another way, between the Wood and Blue Grass, the Wood was the last of the two to produce a winner in the Kentucky Derby. Since that Wood-Kentucky Derby winner, the Florida, Santa Anita, and Arkansas Derbies have had a combined eight winners go on to win the Kentucky Derby.

There isn’t much room for debate here. The Blue Grass and Wood Memorial are races with histories, but when compared with analogous races such as the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Arkansas Derby, they have not kept step for many years. It might hurt proponents of the Blue Grass and Wood, but these downgrades make sense.

So does the upgrade of the Pennsylvania Derby. It is important here to understand the distinction between a race like the Pennsylvania Derby, and races like the Blue Grass and Wood. The Blue Grass and Wood are out-and-out prep races, and their worth can really only be measured by how their winners go on to perform in the race (the Kentucky Derby) they serve.

The Pennsylvania Derby is much more of a standalone event. Sure, it’s a serviceable springboard to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A cynic would also say it’s a means for horsemen to avoid meeting older horses with their 3-year-olds for one more time. But the Pennsylvania Derby is in no way a pure prep in the sense the Blue Grass and Wood are. And with such horses as Will Take Charge, Bayern, California Chrome, and Frosted (a winner of the Wood, by the way) having competed in it in recent years, and with the first two finishers this year (Connect and Gun Runner) having very recently won Grade 1 races over older horses, it would have been an injustice if the Pennsylvania Derby was not elevated to Grade 1 status.

The ironic thing about the agonizing over the downgrading of the Blue Grass and Wood is that hardly a word has been mentioned about the downgrading of the Mother Goose, which, in my view, was totally unwarranted, and a complete mistake.

Not that anything can be done about it now, but here’s why I forcefully oppose the downgrading of the Mother Goose: Counting Songbird as champion 3-year-old filly this year (daring, I know), three of the last 12 3-year-old filly champions won the Mother Goose – Smuggler in 2005, Rachel Alexandra in 2009, and Untapable only two years ago!

The Mother Goose has operated at a high level for not only a long time, but also, as noted, in very recent years, too. Lowering it to a Grade 2 appears arbitrary, capricious, and I frankly see no justification for it.