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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

DOWNGRADING OF HISTORIC WOODWARD LATEST NAIL IN COFFIN OF RACING’S GLORIOUS PAST

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.

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17 Responses

  1. JP–
    Wow–a shocking development! The greatest race that I have ever seen was Rachel Alexandra “raising the rafters” (thanks Tom Durkin!) and beating the older boys in the 2009 Woodward at Saratoga. A race for the ages to be sure.
    I am hoping this shot across NYRA’s bow from the Graded Stakes Committee provides the impetus for taking whatever actions are necesaary to return this historic race to Grade I status. And while they are at it, could NYRA please return the Met Mile to Memorial Day weekend???

  2. Ditto, Chuck. And I didn’t get into the downgrading of the Cigar Mile to G2. NYRA’s got some ‘splaining to do…

    I mean does NY Racing really need like–what, seven or eight graded stakes in support of the third leg of the Triple Crown?

    They turned the great Metropolitan Handicap into a Belmont Stakes sub-head… “And in other races…”

  3. Hard to justify Grade I status for a race that has not generated much interest in the last few years:

    2022: 4 horses (2 Pletcher), 1 scratch
    2021: 6 horses (2 Mott)
    2020: 5 horses, 1 scratch

  4. I’m well aware that the Woodward has fallen on hard times, Dan, as has many highly respected races. There are too many ways to go, especially at that time of the year. All year-round major venues need to re-think their stakes calendars, perhaps with tracks even talking with each other when they do so. Currently, everyone is failing to optimize and are failing to celebrate the game–before it disappears forever.

  5. JP–
    Thanks for eloquently calling out NYRA on its graded stakes practices and hopefully they wiil pay heed before the Met Mile is added to the list of Grade II races, along with the Cigar Mile and the Woodward.

    1. Indeed, Chuck, the hits just keep on coming in 2022. we will post a remembrance of Ray here on Thursday …

    2. 1].Remembering Ray Kerrison going against the favorites in just about every big race… Those were great sport newspapers days with each tabloid having its own set of columnists and specialized writers for each major sport,from Boxing to Horse racing. If we try to ignore Tradition in ANY sport we will slowly eliminate its roots,its Superstars. 2].IT was First Time i ever Saw This type of racing; I think that it was in RSA,South Africa,a few days ago,where the horses had riders but the horses were Trotters,you know front hoof going along with rear opposite side hoof,and vice versa. the race looked strange,slower that flat racing,and OF Course, about four of the twelve equines broke,just like they would in Harness racing. Never seen it before in all my years of following horses. Hoping that This Thing Wont catch on.I`d rather watch speedy horses sprinting 330 yards ! what`s up with this kind of racing ? Happy Holydays,New Year,better,and more winners.

      1. JG, I enjoy the novelty of harness racing with jockeys aloft–not for wagering, just for interest and enjoyment, looking for nuances, etc.

        And, yes, those WERE the newspaper days my friend…

  6. In 2023, NYRA will have 33 Grade I races out of the total 97. A valid argument can be made that NYRA has too many.

    ACORN STAKES
    ALABAMA STAKES
    ALFRED G. VANDERBILT HANDICAP
    BALLERINA HANDICAP
    BELMONT DERBY INVITATIONAL STAKES
    BELMONT OAKS INVITATIONAL STAKES
    BELMONT STAKES
    CARTER HANDICAP
    CHAMPAGNE STAKES
    COACHING CLUB AMERICAN OAKS
    DIANA STAKES
    FOREGO STAKES
    FOURSTARDAVE HANDICAP
    FRIZETTE STAKES
    H. ALLEN JERKENS MEMORIAL STAKES
    HOPEFUL STAKES
    JAIPUR STAKES
    JOCKEY CLUB GOLD CUP STAKES
    JOE HIRSCH TURF CLASSIC STAKES
    JUST A GAME STAKES
    MAN O’ WAR STAKES
    MANHATTAN STAKES
    METROPOLITAN HANDICAP
    NEW YORK STAKES
    OGDEN PHIPPS STAKES
    PERSONAL ENSIGN STAKES
    SARATOGA DERBY INVITATIONAL STAKES
    SPINAWAY STAKES
    SWORD DANCER STAKES
    TEST STAKES
    TRAVERS STAKES
    WHITNEY STAKES
    WOODY STEPHENS STAKES

  7. Point well made and taken, Dan, but a little tangential given the history of the Woodward vs. the Grade 1s you list above.

    Quick, without consulting wikipedia, name three recent winners of the Jaipur, the Carter, (Triple dead heat Brownie, Bossuet and Wait A Bit in 1944 not eligible).

    Remember the photo? I think it once appeared in every barroom in America.

    1. I saw the 1944 photo for the first time when Suffolk Downs had a triple dead heat in 1981.

      An 8.500 seat performing arts venue is under construction in the Suffolk Downs infield and will open in 2023. No telling what they’ll find under there if they dig deep enough.

      1. Whitey Bolger???

        On a serious note, like the idea. Boston area is supposed to have a racetrack and having a related venue option makes “destination” sense. Period!

  8. The Curse of the Met Mile is that the race simply cannot even be run on Met Mile Day. Sadly,¿ Memorial Day for me comes up short each year. I will never understand the reasoning for NYRA’s dismissal of their fan base, but view it all as a sellout to the prospect of more $$$ to be had elsewhere. And now further detracting from the historic value of the sport, the Woodward is also removed from it’s place on the altar.

    But soldier on we will, and turn the page to yet another year of anticipating our newest class of champions arriving this spring.

    My prayers go out for the Ray Kerrison family on learning of his entering into the fullness of life. I must reveal to John Pricci that Ray Kerrison for years was my turn to New York writer when it came to the Triple Crown events. Ray focused on doseage, and his recommended participants breeding to get the classic distances. Even when coming up short at Churchill Downs, a patient mind set was often rewarded anew back at our home track in Belmont. Thinking of Lemon Drop Kid, and a handful of other well priced winners and exactas Ray had cited through the years both Churchill and Belmont. RIP Mr. Kerrison.

    P.S. And to think, we also could tap into the mindsets of Harris, Kerrison, and Pricci, all at five cents a man.

  9. By now I assume you know 2023 Arlington Million will be run at Colonial. If they didn’t know where the races would be run, I suppose they needed to pigeon-hole it somewhere. Yes, Belmont is supposed to be ready; supposed is a key word…

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