North American racing did not recognize a grass champion until 1953, the year after the Washington, D.C., International was inaugurated at Laurel and the first year of the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City. Female turf champions were not officially recognized until 1979, when Trillion won that division's inaugural Eclipse Award (although the brilliant mare Dahlia was named champion turf runner over males in 1974).
In the 48 years since Iceberg II was named that first turf champion in 1953, only a handful of runners have been named both Horse of the Year and outstanding turf male or female. The first was Round Table, a two-time grass champion who excelled on dirt and turf and was Horse of the Year in 1958. Dr. Fager was turf champion off just one race in his 1968 Horse of the Year campaign. Secretariat made his final two starts on grass in 1973, when he was voted turf champ and Horse of the Year.
John Henry, Horse of the Year and outstanding turf runner in both 1981 and 1984, was a grass specialist who also ran very well on dirt, winning a third Eclipse in 1981 when he was voted best older male. Only two horses have won Horse of the Year racing exclusively on turf: All Along in 1983, and Kotashaan in 1993. A third turf champion, Fort Marcy, who shared Horse of the Year honors with Personality in 1970, ran twice on dirt that year in non-stakes races.
Turf racing doesn't have the tradition on this continent that it does in Europe, where horse racing is conducted almost exclusively on grass. It also doesn't have the numbers: of 60,572 races run in North America in 2000, only 5,140, or 8.5%, were run on turf. That's obviously because many tracks do not have a turf course. Among those that do, only a limited number of races can be run over the grass because of the challenge of keeping it in safe condition for the horses and jockeys.
Yet turf racing, as seen through the eyes of the American Graded Stakes Committee, is almost as important as dirt racing in this country. Most surprisingly, the horses having the greatest opportunity to win a grade I race are older males competing on turf. Seventeen such races are grade I, compared to just 14 races at a mile or more on dirt for the same aged runners. Male horses that compete for the Triple Crown have just 10 opportunities to win a grade I race restricted to 3-year-olds.
In 2002, 30 of the 101 grade I races are scheduled for the turf. Overall, 173 of America's 486 graded stakes for 2002 will be turf races, or 35.6%. By comparison, of the 2,651 stakes run in North America in 2000, 587, or 22.1%, were on turf.
Turf races were not always afforded such lofty status. In 1973, when the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association first graded races, only 12 of the 64 grade I races were run on turf, less than 20%. There were nine grade I races on turf for older male runners going a mile or more, compared to 13 on dirt.
The committee has worked diligently over the years to be objective in the grading process--not perfect, perhaps, but objective. Committee members and TOBA staff have refined the methodology used to grade races, and, despite annual criticism from this writer and others who disagree with specific decisions, the system does work.
Still, there are questions. Should there be fewer grade I races for juvenile and 3-year-old colts in 2002 than there were in 1974? Should 15 of the 90 grade I races for 3-year-olds or older horses be in sprints, considering there were none in 1974?
At some point, if they have not done so already, committee members may want to step back from the stacks of statistical data, look at the nearly 30-year pattern of graded stakes, and ask: "Does this all make sense?"