Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Grade I Stakes: The Pro Tour of Horse Racing

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Grade I Stakes: The Pro Tour of Horse Racing

Article excerpt

Golf, tennis and bowling all have their professional tours, long strings of major events that wind across the country and through the calendar.

Fans keep close count of the leaders in tour victories, an imperfect but useful way to measure consistency and achievement.

Thoroughbred racing also has its version of the pro tour, though no one seems to know it.

Of the more than 80,000 races that will be run this year in North America, about 2,700 are stakes races, events with names and extra purse money to draw top horses.

Each year, a committee of breeders and racing officials meets in Kentucky to consider which 500 or so of those 2,700 races deserves to be ``graded,'' listed as something special.

The committee then further refines those races as Grades I, II or III events.

This year, there are 420 graded races: 178 are Grade III's, the worst of the best, with 120 Grade II's and an elite of 122 Grade I's.

So only one of every 700 races is a Grade I, but that probably is still too many, given the wide differene in quality among these events.

Winning Colors for example, is a three-time winner of Grade I races this year, having scored memorable victories in the Santa Anita Oaks, the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

But so is something named Pen Bal Ldy, by virtue of triumphs in such overrated events as the Santa Ana, the Santa Barbara and the Gamely Handicaps, three California grass handicaps for fillies.

It seems that every race beginning with San or Santa is automatically given Grade I status, but California is not alone in presenting second-rate Grade I races.

At Saratoga, N.Y., last month, neither the Ballerina Stakes nor the Bernard Baruch Handicap on their past records deserved their newly anointed Grade I status, and neither do such other tepid New York fixtures as the Manhattan Handicap.

Nor does Arlington Park in Illinois deserve half of the Grade I races it will present when it reopens next year.

Another problem is that the number of Grade I's has been growing steadily for the last decade, well out of proportion to the size of the foal crop or the quality of American racing.

Elevating races to Grade I status is a rather self-serving attempt by the breeders to make more horses look better than they really are.

Despite these problems, the menu of Grade I stakes does amount to a pro tour in racing.

The sport is looking for new ways to attract sponsors and fan interest, and promoting these races as a group might stir some interest. …

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