The Brock Talk

Friday, December 4, 2009

Derby Preps Deserve Graded Flexibility

This week the American Graded Stakes Committee released their annual list of graded stakes to be run in North America in 2010 and they have certainly grabbed the attention of racing fans in the social networking worlds of Twitter and Facebook.

Each year since 1973 the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association has appointed a committee to evaluate all major added-money Thoroughbred races in North America and "grade" them as I, II, III or ungraded with grade I representing the most prestigious, richest and most highly competitive. TOBA appoints six of their members to the committee (including the committee chairman) and each year invites six leading racing officials to also serve.

According to the TOBA website, "the purpose of the American Graded Stakes Committee is to provide owners and breeders of Thoroughbred horses a reliable guide to the relative quality of Thoroughbred bloodstock by identifying those U.S. races whose recent renewals have consistently attracted the highest quality competition." The committee has a $75,000 purse requirement for a race to be considered for grading and also considers the longevity of the race, insures adequate drug and anabolic steroid testing, and that the race be restricted only by age and gender.

It is a good process that was quickly emulated by racing jurisdictions and recognized by publications and sale companies around the world.

My criticism comes from the line "provide owners and breeders... a reliable guide". Once again the racing powers have snubbed their noses at the fans.

To be fair, the graded stakes committee at one time "unofficially" considered the public appeal of graded races and tried giving graded status to races at smaller tracks in an effort to promote those tracks. the grading system, but it was determined that granting a graded status to given race had little effect on attendance or the promotion of the given track. As a longtime marketing guy, this was very difficult for me to accept but I eventually came to realize that this was fundamentally true. Nobody was going to Brock Talk Downs to see the Sheridan Derby because it was a graded race.

The last line of the TOBA website page describing the American Graded Stakes process reads "Judgment and flexibility... must always be a part of the system." And that is the tool the committee can use to make the most appreciated changes for the fans without compromising the mission of the process as stated by TOBA.

Based on the Twitter and Facebook comments and posts I've seen since the committee announced their 2010 schedule, there is one area that garnered most of the attention of racing fans regarding graded races - Kentucky Derby prep races. Specifically, the changes made to the grading of the Illinois Derby, Sunland Derby and Arkansas Derby are getting the internet chatterers a chattering.

The Arkansas Derby has been upgraded from II to I, the Sunland Derby is grade III for the first time and the Illinois Derby was downgraded from a grade II to a grade III.

In my humble opinion, the grade I status for the Arkansas Derby is long overdue. With Triple Crown stars such as Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones and Curlin among it's last six winners, it appears it should have been a grade I a long time ago. And remember, Smarty Jones was just a Birdstone's throw away from being a Triple Crown winner.

Illinois Derby stars include Derby winner War Emblem, Ten Most Wanted and Musket Man. Not a stellar class and really the race probably deserves a grade III based on the committee's criteria, but this race has evolved during the last decade into a legitimate Derby prep. It is not on par with the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby or Wood Memorial, but it certainly is more significant to prospective Derby starters than the Sunland Derby, even though the Sunland race produced Mine That Bird last year.

The Louisiana Derby seems to be another Derby prep on the rise having produced last year's Derby favorite Friesan Fire as well as Pyro and Circular Quay the previous two years. Problems with scheduling the Florida Derby on a consistent basis and slot revenues have helped the Louisiana Derby quality recently and it is now a serious race to look for in the Derby past performances.

Again, I'm not saying the Louisiana Derby is on par with the big boys, but it is certainly not on the same level as the grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn which is prep for a Derby prep.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that these Derby prep races are more significant to fans and horse players than perhaps the TOBA realizes. They may not be bringing people to the races, but they are important guides to the marginal fans that handicap that one race a year - The Kentucky Derby. So if there is one area where I would like the American Graded Stakes Committee use some of their judgment and flexabilty it is with these Derby Preps. It is perhaps the one group of races that the casual fan depends on the graded stakes committee to help them find a winner.


lj said...

Well stated Brock!! And I do so agree with you too! If these races were more broadly advertised as Derby preps, I believe that'd sure affect attendance also.

Your pal,
jock4hire, (lj)

malcer said...

Good post,

The Ark Derby really is long overdue, and will (if anything) increase in importance as a true dirt race. From a marketing standpoint, there can be no doubt that Oaklawn's loyal and numerous customer base 'deserves' a G1 race.

Not so sure about the Illinois Derby, though. Sure there have been some prominent winners over the past decade, but if you look at the 2nd and 3rd placed horses there's not much quality to be found.

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