by John Piassek
TOO MANY GRADE 1s: TIME TO CUT BACK
Here are some indisputable facts:
- There are too many G1s for two-year-olds.
- There are too many G1s for three-year-olds.
I mean, when you think about it, the whole idea of having grade 1 races for such inexperienced horses is pretty ludicrous. Especially with two-year-olds, a lot of horses in these “G1” races are recent maiden winners, or winners of some small stakes beforehand. Then, oftentimes, people look back on the fields, and they fall well short of grade 1 quality.
The 2015 Hopeful winner, for example, was Ralis, who has not won a race from eleven tries since. The 2015 Champagne winner, Greenpointcrusader, has not won a race since his score, either. In fact, the only horse in that entire Champagne field to go on and win a graded stakes is Sunny Ridge, who has one grade 3 score to his name. The 2014 Champagne winner, Daredevil, did not win a race again, either. Only two horses out of that race, Upstart, and El Kabeir, have won a graded stakes race since.
This is relevant because, last Friday, the American Graded Stakes Committee released their annual upgrades and downgrades of American graded stakes races. One race received an upgrade to grade 1: the Pennsylvania Derby. As many social media warriors proclaimed over the years, that race was a deserving grade 1. Most years, the race attracts experienced three-year-olds who have won at least one graded stakes. Recent winners include Frosted, Will Take Charge, and Bayern, all of whom proved to be good horses afterward. Also-rans include California Chrome, Nyquist, Moreno, and Exaggerator, grade 1 winners all.
Downgraded were the Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass Stakes, both of which deserved to be downgraded. Yet, many racing people reacted with disdain, especially to the former race losing its grade 1 status.
I have the opposite perspective: while the committee’s downgrading of those races was a start, it is not nearly enough. It’s time for American racing to de-emphasize two-year-old and three-year-old racing, and strip most of those races of their graded status.
Why? Well, first off, as previously noted, these races are often nowhere near grade 1 quality. Sure, some recent winners of the Wood wound up being good horses (Frosted, Wicked Strong, Verrazano), but more often than not, they were not (Toby’s Corner, Gemologist, Outwork). And even if they were good horses, the fields that they beat to earn that status were not very good. When Verrazano won the Wood, he defeated only two stakes winners: Freedom Child and Vyjack. Frosted defeated Tencendur in his Wood, and that rival is 0-for-2 since that Wood. Outwork’s Wood this year was especially a disaster; a maiden, Trojan Nation, finished second. Trojan Nation has since broken his maiden, but he hasn’t won outside of that. A horse named Matt King Coal went off at less than 4/1, which tells you all you need to know about that race.
(don’t think I’m picking on the Wood here; a lot of these Derby preps draw similarly bad fields)
This leads to a more important issue: the proliferation of grade 1s at an early age leads to easy excuses for early retirements. As noted by many, the winners of almost every major Derby prep have been sent off to stud, leaving us with a very thin older male division for next year. The plan with precocious young horses is simple: beat up on some lousy field, get an easy grade 1 score, then retire. Brody’s Cause was retired in mid-summer after winning two grade 1 races, after never placing in a stakes race that wasn’t at Keeneland. He would have been a fun horse to have around for later in the year, and next year, but he’s already earned his worth as a stallion. As such, there’s no point in racing him.
When stuff like this happens, the sport suffers. How can people follow a sport when its stars are extinguished almost as soon as they jump on the scene? Early retirements of sound horses are no good, but the current system makes it easy to have that happen.
As such, I propose the following changes to graded stakes races (none of which will probably happen, ever, but I can dream):
- No two-year-old race, with the exception of (maybe) the Breeders’ Cup races, should have grade 1 status. I don’t care how many great horses have won those races, or how good the fields may look a year after the fact. In the moment, they’re filled with inexperienced horses who will go on to undistinguished careers.
- No three-year-old race prior to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks should be a grade 1. That includes all of them, including the Florida Derby (which, outside of Nyquist and Mohaymen, drew a pretty lousy bunch this year), the Arkansas Derby, and the Santa Anita Derby. In fact, I would go as far to say every Derby prep should have its status lowered by one grade. Whatever status the race has, it probably does not deserve it.
- As the year goes on, other three-year-old races should be downgraded, too. I think it goes without saying, for example, that no one would be too distraught if a race like the Hollywood Derby lost its grade 1 status.
For years, racing has bemoaned the premature retirement of its possible stars. Removing the grade 1 label from a lot of races would go a long way towards fixing that. That way, the majority of grade 1s would be for older horses, where the races have more experienced horses with more stakes wins, and the label means a lot more. Even better, there’s a chance more horses would stay in training, meaning bigger fields and more fan and bettor interest.