Several years ago, in reviewing the activities of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association's North American Graded Stakes Committee, it was suggested here that the system for ranking races in order of importance (grade I, grade II, grade III) was one of the few things in racing that didn't need fixing.
That still holds true today, though even the smoothest-running engine needs an occasional tune-up. For the American Graded Stakes Committee (Canada withdrew to grade its own stakes beginning in 1999), the time for that tune-up may have arrived.
No group in American racing has been criticized or ridiculed as much as the Graded Stakes Committee. One of England's leading bloodstock journalists, Tony Morris, made it a habit to harangue the committee at least once a year, arguing that its standards were too lenient. A number of American racing journalists lamented the downgrading of historically important races, many of which were weakened in quality by the advent of the Breeders' Cup in 1984. It's almost as if there are no Edsels or Oldsmobiles in racing.
In recent weeks, New Jersey racetrack executive Bruce Garland even suggested the Graded Stakes Committee is a puppet of the New York Racing Association and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "Whether they are on the committee or not, when NYRA requests something, it gets done," Garland said.
Garland was referring to the upgrading (from grade II to grade I) of the Jim Dandy Stakes at NYRA-run Saratoga. The Jim Dandy traditionally is run the same August weekend as the grade I Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park, a track run by Garland and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Both races are for 3-year-olds. The Haskell is New Jersey's only grade I race of the year, and Garland said the on-track crowd makes it the state's biggest sporting event of the year outside of football. He is concerned that it will be more difficult to attract top-quality horses to the Haskell, particularly from New York, if there is another grade I race in the division the same weekend. Weaker fields eventually will lower the grade of the race and make it less attractive for fans.
First, Garland should know it is not the responsibility of the Graded Stakes Committee to help racetracks market their races; the sole reason to grade races is to give owners and breeders a reliable guide to the relative quality of Thoroughbred racehorses. Second, if Garland wanted to know how the Jim Dandy was moved up to grade I, he could ask his own racing secretary, Sean Greely, a non-voting member of the committee.
Having said that, however, it is easy to sympathize with Garland's position. The Haskell has been and is a very important race for 3-year-olds to win. The Jim Dandy, while attracting good fields in recent years, is little more than a prep race for the grade I Travers Stakes, run later in August. Prep races often get very strong fields, but the fact remains they are not the ultimate goal of owners and trainers of the best horses. These races should be graded with that in mind.
The Jim Dandy isn't the first "prep" to be a grade I. Santa Anita's Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies is a grade I prep for the grade I Santa Anita Oaks. Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Stakes for 3-year-olds is a grade I prep for the grade I Florida Derby. In a strange twist, the Malibu Stakes, a one-time grade II prep for the grade I Strub Stakes, is now a grade I race while the Strub is a grade II.
Almost to a fault, the committee uses objective statistical criteria in the grading of races, in part to ensure that politics and favoritism do not come into play. Just as important as those statistics, however, are the interpretations and common sense decisions on just what the numbers mean.