Stakes...Well Done After 30 Years

Published in the Nov. 22, 2003 issue of The Blood-Horse
Someone always seems unhappy after the American Graded Stakes Committee meets each fall and announces upgrades or downgrades to the program for the upcoming year. A persistent critic in Great Britain says the United States has far too many graded races because the overall quality of American horses is lower than that in Europe. Racetrack managers here bristle when one of their races drops a grade, fearing the demotion will lead to a lesser-quality field, fewer fans, and lower handle. Journalists take special pleasure in trying to pick apart the logic used by the committee to grade a race.

Oaklawn Park took its criticism a step further when owner Charles Cella thought his races were unfairly downgraded in 1989, taking out advertisements in racing industry publications and ridiculing the committee and the process it followed to grade races.

But the program has stood the test of time. Thirty years have passed since the late Jacques Wimpfheimer, then president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, invited a group of racing secretaries, owners, and breeders to join him in creating a system ranking North America's best races.

Keeneland's James E. "Ted" Bassett III said the graded stakes program has helped upgrade many stakes races by creating an incentive for tracks to raise purses and emphasize quality over quantity. "Furthermore," Bassett said, "it had a great influence on establishing standards and adding credibility for black type in sales catalogues, making it an accepted reference."

While racing a stable of horses in Europe, Wimpfheimer learned how France, Great Britain, and Ireland had begun a Pattern Race system in 1971, ranking the best races as group I, II, or III events. He felt North America needed a similar system.

The inaugural Graded Stakes Committee consisted of TOBA representatives Wimpfheimer, who served as chairman, Lou Doherty, and John A. Bell III; racing officials F.E. "Jimmy" Kilroe representing Santa Anita and Hollywood Park and Kenny Noe Jr. of the New York Racing Association; and Kent Hollingsworth, then editor of The Blood-Horse. They met for two days at The Blood-Horse, where executive editor Charles Stone and the research staff compiled charts and other statistics for the 1,450 stakes races run in 1973.

The group graded 330 races for 1973 and 1974 (the chart on page 6460 lists the actual number run, which is lower because of cancellations), just one-half of 1% of all races and one-fourth of all black-type races run in North America. By comparison, 53.6% of the black-type races in England, Ireland, and France were given a group I, II, or III designation. The Blood-Horse began printing a booklet listing the graded stakes and distributed it free to subscribers.

According to Hollingsworth, the main consideration for grading the races was the quality of horses that had competed in previous runnings. Tradition was given some consideration, as was the prestige of some races among breeders. Distance races were preferred over sprints, and allowance conditions or weight-for-age races had preference over handicaps.

Noe, who remained a member of the committee for 16 years, recalled that he and Kilroe agreed to join the panel in part to protect the races run at the tracks where they worked. But he said they quickly discovered the grading process was fair and sincere. "Basically, we were more critical of the races at our tracks," Noe said. "There was no preference given and we tried to be fair to every racetrack."

Grading the races was considered an important enhancement to a sale catalogue's black type, which was first used by Fasig-Tipton in 1952. Fasig-Tipton was also the first sale company to include North American grades in catalogues, taking the step in 1975. Keeneland came onboard the following year. Buyers, especially those from foreign countries, often had difficulty understanding the quality of different stakes, and the grading system was developed principally for them and others in the commercial market.

That philosophy has held true over the 30-year history of graded stakes. New chairmen and committee members have come and gone and the structure of the committee has changed on at least two occasions. But the stakes are still graded to sort out the quality of races won by horses that are displayed in sale catalogues.

That is not to say race grades cannot be used for other purposes. The Breeders' Cup assigns points to graded races and uses those points to rank horses in each division throughout the year and to assign a specific number of berths in the World Thoroughbred Championships races. Graded stakes points also are used to determine who gets into the field for the Visa Triple Crown Challenge races when the fields are oversubscribed.

The number of stakes graded by the committee declined during the remainder of the 1970s, even though there were more races run across North America each year. The trend reversed in the 1980s, which began with 266 graded stakes in 1980 and ended with 438 in 1989. The number of grade I events soared, going from 72 in 1980 to 121 in 1989, an increase of 66%.

It was during this time that Tony Morris, the respected bloodstock writer for the Racing Post in England, skewered the committee's decisions annually.

"The scheme has been an administrative disaster, with the annual review reduced to the level of farce by statistical equipment unsuited to the job and a team of workers with a false set of priorities," Morris wrote in 1988. "The result of those blunders is a scheme which has now forfeited its last vestige of international credibility."

One year later, whether or not they were reacting to the criticism, the committee made some significant changes for the 1990 racing season, downgrading 27 grade I races, and creating a pyramid-shaped program, where 20% of the graded races were grade I, 30% grade II, and 50% grade III. Beginning in 1984, when the Breeders' Cup was inaugurated, adding seven grade I races to the program, there were more grade I races than there were grade II. The pyramid has remained relatively intact since 1990, with the 2003 schedule showing 21% grade I, 32% grade II, and 47% grade III.

Morris took particular exception to methods adopted by the committee in which each eligible race was assigned points based on different measures of the quality of the field over the most recent five years.