And how do we know when too much of a good thing is enough? When more equals less, and that’s the case at the highest levels of thoroughbred racing.
Followers of the sport in recent years weren’t surprised last week when the American Graded Stakes Committee increased the number of graded stakes races to be run next year.
While there will be two fewer Grade 2s run in 2008, there will be three more Grade 1s and six newly installed G3s.
I can’t argue with the elevation of the Pilgrim, Miss Grillo, Southwest and Florida Oaks to graded status. The first two are natural preps for the new Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, the Southwest begins the road to the Arkansas Derby and the Florida Oaks has gained prestige with the addition of South Florida shippers into Tampa Bay Downs.
The proportion of graded stakes, and their delineation in relation to each other, makes sense, too. Over 22 percent are G1, almost 32 percent G2, and 45 percent are G3.
However, 718 open stakes is too many, as are the number of Grade 1s, set at 110 in 2008. Grade 1 racing represents the sport’s highest level and often defines championships. But to suggest that all G1s are created equal is folly.
The increase in the number of stakes in the modern era began in the mid-1970s after the great Secretariat was syndicated for a then unheard of $6-million. That stunning sum was the beginning of how the breeding industry--and not the sport of racing one man’s horse against another--ultimately would determine success in the thoroughbred business.
With fewer racing dates, no simulcasting, and three Triple Crown winners within six years-- Secretariat, undefeated Seattle Slew, and the Affirmed/Alydar show--going to the races was a very popular alternative to mainstream sports.
Breeding syndicates began to replace family owned nurseries and that portion of the industry was beginning to be fueled by Japanese and European buyers purchasing our best bloodlines for racing and future breeding considerations.
Racing was becoming very big international business, and tracks began competing with each other in an era when star racehorses still attracted media attention and large live crowds.
Fueled by an increase in betting handle, more money was poured into newly created stakes with allowance and weight-for-age conditions becoming more prevalent. Resultantly, racing secretaries would either keep the highweight assignments of top handicap horses on the feathery side or go back to walking hots. New York even imposed a highweight rule, not to exceed 126 pounds.
With field size in stakes shrinking from opportunities to win and earn big purses elsewhere, horsemen, motivated by loyalty to owners and their own pocketbooks, began ducking “the big horse” with their own “big horse,” even if you still had to ship to Belmont Park in the fall to win a title.
Parenthetically, it is no wonder it crossed John Gaines’s mind to come up with a series of championship defining races on one day, a Super Bowl for racing, paid by the proceeds of all those valuable stud horses and their toney progeny.
Given monetary success at the sport’s highest levels and with simulcasting about to enter its infancy, new tracks began to sprout up everywhere. This necessitated that graded events be created to engender a big time atmosphere at these new venues, forcing powerhouse tracks to begin lobbying for an upgrade of their own traditional races.
In politics, size matters.
While this country may still be regarded as bloodstock nursery to the world, it has begun to lose ground. Europeans, Japanese and more recently Middle Eastern interests are not only snapping up the best of America’s remaining blue-blooded stock at yearling and juvenile sales but are taking them right off the racetrack and back to their own farms around the globe.
Aside from the historical factors and the economic reality of expensive horses earning graded blacktype almost as soon as the overnight comes out, the modern game’s added opportunities artificially increases the value of today’s stakes winners as potential stallions, which seems to be the way the game is played by today’s new strain of owner/breeder.
There are myriad reasons then for the existence and continued growth of stakes opportunities, but a stakes win doesn’t equate to class the way it once did, in the same manner that the 9-furlong Haskell doesn’t equate to the 10-furlong Travers even though both are Grade 1 events.
The prevailing trend in thoroughbred racing is the burgeoning growth of international sport. In this country, however, the prevailing wind still seem to blow only in the colonies as the number of stakes races increase year to year. It might be counterintuitive, but the greater the number of stakes races, the more we cheapen the value of our best horses and the less we dominate the sport internationally.
If that weren’t true, if too many stakes opportunities weren’t counterproductive, then how do we explain that in the recent Breeders’ Cup, the only international representation on hand were two handfuls of European runners.
If we still cling to the notion that American racing is the world’s best--as represented by the total number of stakes winners--then why did Hong Kong attract runners from five European countries and Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Singapore this weekend for their four Grade 1-program worth over $8-million? Maybe because the racing world also recognizes that not all Grade 1s are equal.