Sunday, April 17, 2011

Guest Post: Does the Blue Grass Deserve Gr I Status?

Many of you who follow various online blogs and racing websites have seen someone with the screen name "Tinky" commenting, including on this one. He submitted a piece via email to me, regarding the Gr I Blue Grass at Keeneland. I have reprinted it here for you. For an alternate view, please see Jeremy Plonk's ESPN piece from last year where he said "I've read ridiculous accounts in the racing press about the need to strip the Blue Grass of its grade, and how it's become irrelevant to the racing landscape", and supported it with his facts and opinion. It's a lively debate, one which probably won't go away anytime soon, especially with the modern (some would say) less than deep three year old crops.

In October of 2006, Keeneland debuted the Polytrack surface on what had previously been a traditional dirt track. There have now been five runnings of the Blue Grass Stakes since the switch. Would anyone care to recite from memory the winners of those five Grade I events? How about three of the five? Two?

While it was entirely predictable that the switch in surface would degrade the Blue Grass’ long-standing reputation as a meaningful stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby, it might have required an extra dose of cynicism to have predicted the precipitous fall from grace that we have witnessed.

Here’s a brief look at the four winners of the race prior to 2011:

Dominican raced 15 times subsequent to his Blue Grass victory. He won just one of those races, a three-other-than allowance at Presque Isle Downs by a head. He ran in nine graded races, all but one (the Derby) Grades II and III, and could only muster some non-threatening placed finishes in the weakest of them.

Monba raced only five times after his Blue Grass win. He finished last in the Derby (though was probably injured), and third in two very weak Grade IIIs.

Stately Victor raced nine times after the Blue Grass. He won a weak, ungraded stakes at Woodbine (his only subsequent win), and placed in two weak Grade III races.

General Quarters, winner of the ’09 Blue Grass, was the only previous winner to have demonstrated anything remotely approaching Grade I class. While he predictably made no impact in either the Derby or Preakness, he did come back to win a Grade I turf race at Churchill as a four-year-old, and ran a creditable third behind Blame in the Stephen Foster as well.

The horse that won this year’s Blue Grass, Brilliant Speed, may well develop further, but has a long way to go before proving himself to be true Grade I caliber on any surface.

To be fair, there have been three placed horses, Street Sense, Paddy O’Prado and Game On Dude, which proved to be high-class performers. But if you add those three together with General Quarters, you have a grand total of four, arguably legitimate Grade I performers, to have won or placed in the race over the last four years.

So, what’s the point? The point is that the American Graded Stakes Committee has some serious ‘splainin’ to do. How can they possibly justify – while retaining any semblance of consistency – the continued granting of Grade I status to the Blue Grass? There is no reasonable set of criteria by which one could possibly lead to the conclusion that the Blue Grass deserves Grade I status.

It’s a glaring, and outrageous departure from what the committee maintains are rather clear standards for designating Graded race status. From TOBA’s own website, here are the main criteria for consideration:

The quality of a race is evaluated using:
  1. 1.stakes performance of all horses in the field in the 24 months before and after the race, and
  2. 2.annual classification ratings of the four highest-rated horses in the field

Stakes performance is measured in three ways:
  1. 1. POINTS (reflecting field-horses’ 1-2-3 finishes in all unrestricted black-type events);
  2. 2. PERCENTAGE of Graded Stakes Winners in the field;
  3. 3. QUALITY POINTS (number of Grade I, II, and III winners in the field

Based on the very straightforward criteria above, the Blue Grass should be a Grade II event at best, and assigning Grade I status is utterly unsupportable.

Finally, and again from TOBA’s website:

The U.S. grading system is designed to accommodate the flexibility and dynamism of U.S. racing; a grading system that could not quickly respond to our ever-changing conditions would never be appropriate in our country. Judgment and flexibility thus must always be a part of the system.

Really? Then why, after five years of, with rare exceptions, thoroughly ordinary horses winning and placing in the Blue Grass, has the AGSC failed to correct what is a glaringly obvious mistake?


The_Knight_Sky said...

I recited Monba and General Quarters as previous polytrack winners.

But I did my homework on that last week knowing that this year's edition would produce more Bluegrass nonsense. And it did.

Anonymous said...

There is a change in the BG due to being on poly and still being considered a Derby prep. You have an odd mix of horses that compete in it and seeing it is early it is finding itself. Seeing the way a huge number of Gr I's are going of late the BG is one on a long, long list. This race deserves time to see where it fits.


Tinky said...

"This race deserves time to see where it fits"

Phil –

That's fine as far as your opinion goes, but it is decidedly NOT how the Graded Stakes Committee is supposed to approach the question of which Grade to assign.

Anonymous said...

So, out of 15 placegetters in the Derby since polytrack was installed at Keeneland, four or roughly 30 per cent have come out of the BG? It might be meaningful if you posted comparable statistics from other lead up races over the same period, say the Wood Memorial, Florida, Santa Anita and Arkansas Derbies etc. How do they stack up?

Tinky said...

"So, out of 15 placegetters in the Derby since polytrack was installed at Keeneland, four or roughly 30 per cent have come out of the BG?"

Incorrect. Of all of the horses to have contested the Blue Grass since 2007, only Paddy O'Prado and Street Sense finished in the money in the Derby.

More importantly, as I mentioned in the post, only four horses in total could be considered true Grade I performers. An average of one such horse per race, per year, is simply not enough for the race to warrant Grade I status.

I see no reason to check the other races that you mention, but for some perspective, consider this:

In the four runnings prior to Polytrack (2003-6), there were at least 11 horses which won or placed in Grade I races before or after contesting the Blue Grass.

That's the difference between a true Grade I race, and what passes for one now.

@SpotPlays said...

it was a glorified grade 3 grass race. Demote it!

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