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2014 Saratoga Special & Graded Stakes

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It's time for some juvenile graded stakes - which means... something.

Al Bello

The G2-Saratoga Special is slated to run on Sunday afternoon on the Jockey Club Tour on FOX (post time: 6:04 PM Eastern; TV: FoxSports1) , somewhat unofficially beginning the wonderful time of year known for juvenile graded stakes races. As out man TFTribe has pointed out in the past, graded stakes races for juveniles in this country are a bit of an odd bird.

This year's Saratoga Special, like most (if not all) juvenile stakes in the summer, is essentially an N1X race masquerading as a graded event. That's not meant to knock the historical significance of the race, or the fact that some very good horses have run and won this event in the past, but instead points out the truth: the past performances of the field are bone dry of any race against winning horses.

1-I Spent It (7/2): Won MSW at Belmont in debut on July 2nd.
2-Lord Tyrion (30/1): Won MSW at Indiana in second start on July 23rd..
3-Mr. Z (5/1): Won MSW in debut at Churchill and was 2nd in G3-Sanford a couple of weeks ago.
4-Tizcano (8/1): Won MSW in debut at Gulfstream in June.
5-Rod McLeod (20/1): Won MSW at Churchill in debut on June 26th.
6-Nonna's Boy (4/1): Won MSW in Debut at Belmont; 4th in Sanford.
7-Cinco Charlie (9/2): Has run three times (!) making him one of the two "seasoned veterans" of the field; won the G3-Bashford Manor and was 3rd in the Sanford.
8-Stanford (12/1): Won MSW in debut at Monmouth on June 29th.
9-Cleveland Sound (15/1): Won MSW in debut at Delaware on July 10th.
10-Majestic Affair (8/1): Won MSW in debut at Canterbury on July 6th.
11-W V Jetsetter (10/1): The other three-time runner; broke his maiden at Lone Star and followed-up with a minor stakes score at the same track.

And that's you're Saratoga Special field - a good sized field and, at least on paper, it seems like a good betting race. I don't know how this qualifies as a Grade 2 when the overwhelming majority of the field has yet to beat winner, but that's the juvenile stakes system in a nutshell right now.

The race immediately preceding the Saratoga Special is the juvenile filly version, the G2-Adirondack Stakes. This race only drew a field of seven and, like the Special; you're not going to find much of a record to go on in terms of past performances.

The last several years I've struggled to come to grips with the official grade given to races prior to the start of the season, and the "de facto" grade the race produces after its most recent iteration. In other words, there are plenty of instances during the season where races labeled Grade 1 and of lesser quality than those with Grade 2 or 3 tags, and vice versa. Yet on the catalog page, and in the overall view of many fans and commentators, the Grade 1s grab our attention and are a basis of determining which horses are truly the best of the best. The Eclipse Awards at the end of the season are littered with horses that win the most Grade 1s in their division and most of the time those results lack any serious controversy or debate. But that's not always the case.

I'm not sure there's a great "answer" with respect to grading juvenile stakes races; I'd have no problem doing away with grades for juvenile stakes races all together but I know there's no chance in hell of that happening. An overhaul of the structure of the program, like Tribe suggested in his piece, would be a great first step to providing a least a bit better clarity.

As for graded stakes overall: on my own I've been building a database of graded stakes results with the ultimate goal or re-grading, or re-ranking, the each race in context with all of the other graded results. I break the races out by surface for obviously reasons, but the overall rankings make no distinction between age and/or sex, at least in part. (I do some sub analysis by distance and "division" but the overall ranking seeks to represent the best to worst performance for all graded races on a particular surface.)

So far, and I'm still in the process of building the data and refining certain parameters, the rankings work out as I was expecting (and really hoping): races for older males rate the highest with the juvenile races rating the lowest - and that's exactly what we should expect. And then we have the middle ground where things get interesting, especially when we starting looking at the fillies and three year olds. Case in point: Untapable wasn't able to step up and beat the boys when she ran in the Haskell, but what if her connections picked out an easier race against the boys somewhere, like a legit Grade 3 - does she come out on top?

[I don't want to get too far off on a tangent, but Untapable, or any filly that take on the boys, make for an interesting case study. If the filly fails - and usually it's against a Grade 1 field - we (and I'm as big of a offender at this as anyone) take the opinion that they aren't good enough to beat the boys. We forget that they are taking on the best of the boys. Had many of these fillies been placed in Grade 3/2 events with softer fields, they'd probably triumph at a much more frequent rate. Zenyatta lost to Blame, but beat every other male she ever faced. The blur between the sexes and the grades is very tight in certain spots.]

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Making sense of the grades, juvenile or otherwise.

There are so many gray areas in horse racing that the delineation between Grades or Groups, while traditionally serving us well, doesn't really provide the clarity as to the true strength of a particular race in a specific year. Whether we're looking at a juvenile stakes race that's a glorified allowance or a Grade 1 filled with Grade 3-level horses, the strength of the race in the past has little bearing on the quality in the present.

Perhaps it's time to move to a two-tiered grading or rating system; the traditional grade based on prior years and the strength of those fields and results, and a revised rating set at the end of the year that applies to that particular running of the race. We could keep our juvenile Grade 1/2/3s but rank them against the total population (even the ungraded stakes) at the end of the season. At a minimum, that might help us to put races in a better year-by-year historical context.