HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, December 19, 2022 – I have no idea whether the Graded Stakes Committee believes that altering the status of North American racing events should not be an exercise in three-dimensional chess, or whether time constraints and market forces prevent them from thinking their process through.
HRI’s biggest takeaway from the grading alterations made by the committee last week are twofold: That the highest levels of the sport have devolved strictly into a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-results-oriented process, or if it believes that the sport’s antiquity and traditions no longer need to be held in reverence.
I am going to base my perception my argument on one event: The downgrading of the Woodward Stakes to Grade 2statuswhich at onceis disrespectful of racing’s past and cheeky disregard that shows no esteem for an event that has defined Thoroughbred greatness for seven decades.
Never mind this races honor of a man who served as Jockey Club Chairman for two decades, William Woodward Sr., and was a racing vehicle that aggregated a collection of great Thoroughbreds that would have compelled the late Joe Hirsch to ask for a roll of drums to precede a roll call:
Affirmed. Alysheba. Buckpasser. Cigar. Curlin. Easy Goer. Forego. Ghostzapper. Holy Bull. Kelso. Rachel Alexandra. Seattle Slew. Spectacular Bid. And, of course, countless others, 20 of which are commemorated with placards found on walls inside Saratoga’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
As everyone knows, not all graded stakes–whether designated Grade 1, Grade 2, or Grade 3–are created equal.
This just may be the cyclical nature of things, a short-term reflection of the times, a handful of years that represent a tiny blip on a screen documenting American racing’s glorious past. Instead it lends credence to the notion that horse racing in America continues slouching toward sports irrelevancy.
Alas, the graded stakes committee is not alone in this rendering of racing history to the dustbin of its glorious past. All stakes are not created equal because largely because there are too damn many of them. A total of 901 stakes will be run in North America next year, 97 of which are Grade 1.
Of the 901 added-money events, 440 are graded stakes, nearly 49% of all races that are honored with a name. It’s a game of high-stakes poker played with equine bloodstock, not NFT facsimiles.
Greed comes at a cost.
Too many races provide too many chances to construct black-type resumes, victories that translate into sizable sales dollars. This glut of races turns notably forgettable achievement into opportunities for powerful ownership groups a better chance to start the favorite in a graded stakes event. It is what the age of the half-million-dollar Grade 3 has wrought.
Big bucks siphon top horses from top races, thinning the competitive herd from the top down. With Grade 1s available in virtually various regions throughout the year, it’s easy to duck the heaviest heads in the division, get rich while doing so, before putting it all on the line in a single high-profile end-of-year event.
Breeders’ Cup giveth; Breeders’ Cup taketh away.
With respect to the Woodward, the New York Racing Association also shares culpability in contributing to the demise of one of its premier attractions, treating the prestigious event as if it were a pinball, a ping-pong battle that sacrifices Belmont Park prestige on the altar of Saratoga spectacle.
Within a decade, the Woodward left Long Island for the Adirondacks before making an abrupt U-turn back downstate. Saratoga, inarguably the most prestigious sustained race meet run in America, is worthy of the hyperbole. But the cost is too high, at once weakening the post-Belmont Stakes summer and Championship Fall.
Modern racing has evolved, some say devolved, into a dozen mega-event days/weekends and/or short boutique meets. In the lightning age of tele-communications and branding, perhaps this was inevitable. But in its way NYRA disrespected Woodward history, why shouldn’t the committee?
There are more than a handful of stakes elevations and demotions with which to quibble, fodder for another day. But the demotion of the Woodward, which has suffered from its place on the racing calendar and surging competition from a glut of alternatives, never should have been exposed in such a manner.
The prestige associated with the sport’s storied history in New York suffered a blow from which it may never fully recover, even with some future, well intentioned, course correction. Perhaps it was all headed this way. Call it The Curse of the Met Mile.