Question: When is a prep race not a prep race? Answer: When the prep race is a grade I event.
The subject of prep races comes to mind as we look over the schedule of events for the month of August, in Saratoga and elsewhere.
On Aug. 4 at Saratoga, the New York Racing Association will put $600,000 into the pot for the Jim Dandy Stakes, a nine-furlong prep, er, grade I event, run three weeks before the mile and a quarter Travers Stakes. The $1-million Travers is the traditional highlight of the Spa meeting and considered by many to be the most important grade I race for 3-year-olds outside of the Triple Crown.
Incidentally, just a couple of hundred miles down the road from Saratoga, Monmouth Park runs a little race for 3-year-olds called the Haskell Invitational. It has been a grade I event since 1973, and its purse is also $1 million.
The Jim Dandy got its grade I ranking in 2001 for the first time from the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association American Graded Stakes Committee. From 1984 until 2000, it was a grade II race, and from 1973 (the first year of the grading system) until 1983, it was a grade III event.
The Jim Dandy was won by some top horses when it was a grade III race, including Affirmed in 1978, Private Account in 1979, Conquistador Cielo in 1982, and A Phenomenon in 1983. As a grade II event, it's been won by some other good ones: Polish Navy in 1987, Brian's Time in 1988, Fly So Free in 1991, Miner's Mark in 1993, Unaccounted For in 1994, Louis Quatorze in 1996, Awesome Again in 1997, and Favorite Trick in 1998.
Let's face it, though. Most of the best horses racing in the Jim Dandy have the Travers Stakes as their primary objective of the summer. It is, or has been to this point, a prep.
The committee that grades races in this country looks at much more than just who won the races. It assesses the overall quality of the field using, among other things, performances in other graded races. (For a complete explanation, readers are referred back to the Members Guide in the "National Stakes Conditions" supplement to the Jan. 27, 2001, edition of The Blood-Horse.) Most of the information the committee reviews is objective and statistical in nature. The grading is shaped, though not defined, by the numbers produced in the various statistical categories. It is true that computers do the bulk of the work, but then it's up to mere mortals on the committee to interpret the data and determine the grade of the race.
The Members Guide lists a number of guidelines the committee follows. For example, geographic distribution is not a factor, nor are the effects of an upgrade or downgrade on potential sponsorships or promotional opportunities of a race. The committee also said it makes "no effort to grade American races in a manner duplicating the pattern or the calendar of European group races." Therein lies the mindset that permits a prep race to be a grade I.
Under this scenario, the Jim Dandy someday may become Saratoga's premier race for 3-year-olds instead of the Travers. That's what happened in California when Santa Anita's seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, the first leg of the Strub Series for 4-year-olds and a longtime grade II prep for the longer San Fernando and Strub Stakes, was upgraded to grade I in 1995. Because of its grade, the race became just as important to horse owners as the Strub, which was downgraded from its long-held grade I rating to grade II in 1998. Track officials reduced the distance of the Strub from a mile and a quarter to nine furlongs, hoping to attract enough top horses to reverse the grading slide.
Is it possible the nine-furlong Jim Dandy, with its grade I rating, someday may have the same effect on the Travers that the Malibu had on the Strub?