The American Graded Stakes Committee has issued warning letters to racetracks that present nearly every grade 1 stakes for 3-year-olds, advising them that the races would be downgraded for 2004 unless field quality improves.
Among the races that received warnings were the Florida Derby, Fountain of Youth, and Haskell Invitational Handicap. The three Triple Crown races and the Travers Stakes were not sent warnings.
The letter that was sent stated in part that "...the Graded Stakes Committee considers the graded race in question to rank within the lower echelon of that grade-level in its division, and that the race may be a candidate for downgrading for the year 2004."
"I was just stunned--just shocked--to receive the warning," said Robert Kulina, vice president and general manager of Monmouth Park in New Jersey. "This just isn't a big event in the state...it's a big event across the country."
Though champions Point Given and War Emblem, both owned by The Thoroughbred Corp. and trained by Bob Baffert, won the last two editions of Haskell, the overall fields were weak, said Steven Duncker, chairman of the American Graded Stakes Committee. The committee operates under the auspices of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
"While there's no question that Point Given and War Emblem were very good horses, they didn't face deep fields," Duncker said. "We look at a five-year history of a race before issuing a warning letter. The last strong renewal of the Haskell was in 1998, when Coronado's Quest met Victory Gallop."
Duncker said if warning letters are not sent, it cuts down on the ability of the committee to downgrade a race if warranted.
"We sent warning letters to most if not all grade 1 races for 3-year-olds on the dirt, going long, to keep our flexibility open," he said. "If we need to downgrade a race, we're able to do it because the warning letter has been sent."
Duncker said letters are not sent to races that merit upgrading, and he'd like to see the process changed so warning letters are not needed when a race is to be downgraded. That's a topic that may be considered when the committee meets later this year.
"I would say the bottom half of dirt 3-year-old grade 1 races falls very close to one another, and conversely, the top grade 1 races are very close to one another," he said.
Kulina said he always felt pressure trying to assemble a good field for the Haskell, which in 2001 carried a $1.2-million purse and in 2002 a $1-million purse, but the warning letter just "magnifies" the pressure for 2003.
All graded stakes at Monmouth received warning letters, Kulina said.