According to the group’s spokesman, Andy Schweigardt, “… the time is right to begin reducing the number of graded races in the U.S. [given] the sharp decline in the foal crop from 2007-12 and a comparable decline in the number of races held in recent years…
"These races are getting harder and harder to fill and that’s because there just aren’t the horses to fill them... So we’re going to look at the total number of Grade 1s and try to make that number commensurate with the number of horses in inventory..."
"The committee is likely to start trimming the number of Grade 1 races this year and will then seek to trim Grade 2 and Grade 3 races from the roster in subsequent years. It’s not going to happen in one fell swoop ... "’
So the graded stakes total for this year remains at 464. Although there are two fewer G1s at 107, and five fewer G2s at 128, there are now seven more G3s at 229.
Schweigardt further indicated that the committee wished to work from the top down in a process that will take years to complete.
The “one fell swoop” Shakespearean reference became a self-fulfilling prophecy. More of a "foul swipe," the committee took a slice out of traditional fixtures by "hacking off" a pair of G1s that fuel enthusiasm for the sport via nationwide telecasts.
In our opinion, the action that downgraded the storied Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial was disrespectful of racing’s history and traditions. Worse, it affirms a lack of common sense.
Field size for 2016’s G1 Triple Crown preps were 12 at Gulfstream Park, eight for the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial, and 10 for the Arkansas Derby. If field size was a legitimate issue, why was the Blue Grass penalized after attracting 14 runners?
Or for that matter, the Wood, which matched the number of starters at Santa Anita, the base of recent Kentucky Derby winners, but not their Derby itself. And since when did eight become a low number, anyway? It can’t always be about handle.
In fact, the Mother Goose was the only one of 39 G1s downgraded that featured a field with seven starters or less.
No races, with two notable exceptions, assigned G1 or G2 status will actually go away. The real candidates for extinction should the plethora of G3s that mean little in the big picture, bold print on a catalogue page notwithstanding.
Too many of them existed even before the committee downgraded the stock on seven Grade 2s.
Whichever G1s survive should be worthy of focused attention whenever and wherever they are renewed; a celebration of America’s best racing to be enjoyed with its fan base.
Unfortunately, national stakes scheduling doesn’t allow for proper focus on those most worthy. Instead they are too frequently combined on single cards or are in conflict across disparate venues.
Of the 45 days in 2016 when at least one G1 was scheduled, there were 25 days on which two or more G1s were scheduled; 12 of them involved two racetracks, and two of those at a third track as well.
Santa Anita carded two or more G1s on the same day 8 times (includes both Breeders’ Cup days), Belmont Park four times and Saratoga thrice. Churchill and Keeneland had two such days and Arlington, Aqueduct, Del Mar, and Gulfstream once each, a total of 23 multiple-stakes cards.
Further, consider that there were 11 days on which three or more Grade 1s were carded and eight cards with two Grade 1s, including two Breeders’ Cup prep "Super Saturdays."
The 7-Grade 1 day was the result of three major Triple Crown prep days created last year when Keeneland moved the Blue Grass up one week. Despite the conflict with the Wood and Santa Anita Derby, it attracted a field almost as large as the other two combined.
Aqueduct’s spring stakes schedule has the newly downgraded Wood still competing for starters on the same day as two other major preps but will do so with a 25% purse reduction.
If targeting Grade 1 excess on "Big Days" has become the AGSC’s strategy for the future, then NYRA is wearing a bulls-eye with the clustering of its 36 Grade 1 events at the expense of other weekend opportunities.
Saratoga hosted 16 Grade 1s at its 7-weekend race meet. Why couldn’t one G1 have been run each Saturday and Sunday and on the closing holiday Monday? Belmont hosted 17 Grade 1s during its 11-week summer meet and its 7-week fall meet.
Belmont day used up six Grade 1s, excluding two "Super Saturdays" that carded seven Grade 1s between them, leaving only four for the remaining 16 weekends of racing.
Parenthetically, NYRA capped attendance for both of its six-Grade 1 days, featuring the Belmont Stakes and Travers. The logic behind keeping their core customers away from one-third of their Grade 1 schedule continues to elude me.
Of California’s 30 non-Breeders’ Cup Grade 1s, 19 were run at Santa Anita in 12 days, eight at Del Mar in 7 days and two at Los Alamitos in one day. Santa Anita gets away with purses of only $300k for each of 4 Grade 1s on its first "Super Saturday." Attendance was sub-par, too.
Not surprisingly, the race-rating arm of the Thoroughbred Owners & Breeders Associations has preserved the status quo for the benefit of commercial breeders, not racing’s customers.
Graded stakes excess hurts overall competition which has a negative impact on creating greater interest and increased handle.
The wisdom of scheduling more than one Grade 1 race on a single card also escapes me. Surely 94 non-Breeders’ Cup Grade 1s could be distributed more equitably across additional Saturdays, Sundays, Filly Fridays and holidays.
Why not reduce the number of graded stakes across all levels by 20% by 2018 without favoring any particular venue or region by focusing on the divisions themselves?
Start by looking at the 12 non-BC Grade 1s restricted to two-year-olds which in 2016 featured seven races with seven or fewer starters. They might also consider the five G1 turf routes and four G1 dirt sprints restricted to 3-year-olds. Those 21 races alone represent 19.6% of the glut of Grade 1s.
The spotlight of racing shines longest on the final 10 weeks of the Triple Crown trail. In my opinion, that should never have been tampered with. Still, four representatives from five Grade 1 venues stood by and let it happen.
As for the Blue Grass and Wood under-performing in recent years in terms of being winning stepping stones, aren’t preps by their very nature and the random nature of things by definition cyclical?
If, hypothetically, McCraken were to win the Blue Grass, remain undefeated and become the Kentucky Derby favorite, how would a Derby loss reflect poorly on a Derby prep run hard by this country’s most famous Thoroughbred nurseries?
And what if Battalion Runner goes out and wins the Wood in the same impressive manner his stablemate took the Florida Derby? He becomes a single-digit-odds Derby player but then is defeated. Didn’t the Wood do its job by getting him there in high-profile style?
Does that mean the Wood--which produced two of the 1970’s three Triple Crown winners—is no longer deserving to be New York’s Grade 1 three-year-old spring showcase? Aren’t New York fans deserving of a spring championship event?
Maybe the next time the Four Horsemen of Racing’s Apocalypse appear under the same roof they should focus on creating a cohesive national stakes schedule that produces the constructive results they seek.
Events such as the Blue Grass and Wood have more than enough history to stand alone and not be viewed through a narrow Kentucky Derby prism. If the foal crop were to drop below 20,000 or somehow reach 35,000 again, there still will be only one Kentucky Derby hero left standing.
LOS ANGELES, April 3, 2017