A tendency toward injury, the inability of trainers to maintain campaigners and, perhaps, an overabundance of inflated purses to choose from have left horse racing’s greatest stakes humiliated. The horses in many of North America’s most treasured races are incongruent with the reputations of races they’re winning and running in. A quick scan of the runners in some of the highest graded stakes recently contested reveal fields of low graded stakes competitors. The look forward is equally foreboding, as stakes races won by the turf’s greatest stars will most likely be won by horses that nobody’s heard of.
Graded stakes are supposed to represent the ultimate tests. When horses that haven’t raced at this level constitute 90 percent of the field, one must question if the designation “graded stakes” is becoming devalued. Although the standard of graded status may shift with the times, it is often evaluated on the same basis it held previously. With the exception of Rachel Alexandra, the last 15 winners of the Mother Goose, for example, aren’t the equal of the winners of the prior 15 years or, for that matter, the last 30, according to most historians.
The problem of field quality used to be most acute in the Handicap Division, which was decimated of top level performers by the premature disappearance of three-year-old stars. Its saving grace was that many top sophomores were injured early in their careers and needed to come back to racing as four-year-olds, if possible, to establish stallion credentials. In addition, one owner, the late Jess Jackson, kept two of the best older horses – Curlin and Rachel Alexandra – in action, and another, Jerry Moss, saw that Zenyatta would continue on beyond the time that most people expected her retirement.
Although the Breeders’ Cup Classic has benefitted from having three-year-olds competing, it has also provided incentive for high-quality returnees to the track in search of prize money and glory. A long time ago, when the Arlington Million introduced the first $1 million purse, it was able to excite people with its uniqueness. Now, however, there are $1 million purses everywhere, and many of them lure five and six-horses. There are too many big pots available to not take your time with a horse, and horses too fragile to hurry.
This year’s Handicap Division is weak, threatening to make upcoming races such as the Whitney and Woodward real tests for the PR department. Moreover, the three-year-old division has been decimated by injury, similarly rendering the Haskell, Jim Dandy and Travers short on headliners. Uncle Mo may return soon from his untimely illness, but he’s returning a sprinter. In addition, many of the summer’s top events will feel the sting of losing Kentucky Derby Trail standouts.
The Remsen winner Honor and Serve is out with a tendon injury; the Florida Derby winner Dialed In requires knee surgery. These two horses, trained by men with strong Saratoga attachments, were headed for the Spa’s major races. Same for the Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Derby runner-up Nehro, who ended their Triple Crown campaigns compromised. That leaves the Preakness winner Shackleford and the Belmont champion Ruler On Ice for the Travers. Should we get excited about that?
All considered, there’s something to be said about the connection between the number of horses as opposed to the kind of horses participating in a race that leads to good business. NYRA understands this and prefers to address these more pressing exigencies. This past week, the association announced two purse incentives for Saratoga geared toward keeping fields full – one provides a $1000 participation incentive for horses that finish out of the top five and the other boosts purses 20 percent if more than eight betting interests leave the paddock for a race that’s been pulled off the turf. Still these actions are disjunctive to producing product quality.
There have been ups and downs to any given number of North American fixtures through the decades. Although, this time around, like the Earth’s current climate changes, the sport’s problems seem self-made. Resistance to shortening the season and redirecting the assets broadly into races of less historic importance is immovable. There are dozens of graded and weekend stakes that offer purses too high for the good of the sport.
So what will happen is the events promoted as the top of the sport will continue to be cheapened until there is no telling the difference between one from another. Horses without a long vita of achievement will enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame and leave the stage as quickly as they entered it.
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