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The Juvenile Graded Stakes Calendar (and why it is dumb)

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Bill Finley's article on Espn.com got me all riled up again about the juvenile stakes schedule.

New Year's Day, who won the BC Juvenile off of his Maiden victory. Case Closed.
New Year's Day, who won the BC Juvenile off of his Maiden victory. Case Closed.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Thank you, Mr. Finley. What has been ADTSTC's cause celebre gets a little bit of love. I (half-heartedly) apologize for the next 1700ish words since they comprise my yearly rant about the Juvenile Stakes schedule.

I think we have to start with a series of questions. What is a Grade One race? What does it mean to be a Grade One winner versus a Grade 3 winner? What is the importance of being a Grade One winner? Why do we structure the race calendar like we do?

Let's start with the first question (It is too much, let me sum up...). I can honestly say that I do not know the precise definition. So let us go to the Graded Stakes Committee to find us a neat one:

Purse requirement – A race is not considered for grading unless it is scheduled to have a total purse value (excluding state-bred supplements) of at least $75,000 for Listed and eligibile, ungraded, $100,000 for Grade III, $200,000 for Grade II, and $300,000 for Grade I.

Ok, got it. That's a good start. Can't be having Grade Ones that are run for a relative pittance.

Strength of the division will also be considered. If the Committee considers that a race takes on special importance because it is one of the few of its kind (e.g., sprint for older females), such a race might be graded higher than a race that has similar statistics but is one of many in its own category.

Total number of graded races and the distribution of particular grades among the races are monitored by the Committee to retain the approximate shape of a pyramid, i.e., Grade I races being the least numerous, Grade II races next, and Grade III races the most numerous.

Both of those make a ton of sense too! Especially that second bullet. but we'll get to that in a second. But how do they actually grade a race?

Information supplied to the members of the Graded Stakes Committee includes statistical data for the last five years for all eligible races indicating quality of the field based on 1) points assigned for best performance in unrestricted black type stakes (see Appendix A); 2) percentage of graded stakes winners in the field; 3) quality points achieved (see Appendix A) 4) the official charts of the five most recent renewals; 5) North American Rating Committee (NARC) Ratings; and 6) Thoro-Graph ratings. In addition, each renewal is identified by division, grade, distance, surface, purse, and number of starters. Members are expected to utilize this data, together with the knowledge drawn from their own experience, to make individual judgments as to the relative merit of the eligible races. Eight affirmative votes are required to upgrade any race and six affirmative votes are required to downgrade a race.

So SCIENCE! But not really, because it's still a judgment call by the voting members. But I can understand why that is.

Ok, so let's go back to the "pyramid" concept of nesting the Graded Races together. How does the 2YO division look en total?

Status Listed Grade 3 Grade 2 Grade 1
Number 29 13 13 16

Whoops. Guess that pyramid isn't really a rule then. Maybe it's off due to Breeders' Cup? So that encompasses the Juvenile, the Juvenile Fillies, the Juvenile Turf, and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. So then the pyramid probably looks like one of the prototypes the Egyptians built but then fell down? Right?

So what do those 12 non-BC Grade 1 races mean? What does a Grade 1 race mean in general? I remember that Rick Hammerle, racing secretary at Santa Anita, said on At the Races with Steve Byk that the Grade Ones are the championships for the division for the meet. I love that definition, so I'm going to run with it. Let's look at Belmont's Juvenile Stakes schedule.

Track Grade Name 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
BEL 1 FOXWOODS CHAMPAGNE S. Havana Shanghai Bobby Union Rags Uncle Mo Homeboykris
BEL 1 FRIZETTE S. Artemis Agrotera Dreaming of Julia My Miss Aurelia A Z Warrior Devil May Care
BEL 2 FUTURITY S. In Trouble Overanalyze Jack's in the Deck --Not Run-- D'Funnybone
BEL 2 MATRON S. Miss Behaviour Kauai Katie Millionreasonswhy --Not Run-- Awesome Maria
BEL 3(T) PILGRIM S. Bobby's Kitten Noble Tune Shkspear Shaliyah Air Support Eskendereya
BEL 3(T) MISS GRILLO S. Testa Rossi Watsdachances Pure Gossip Winter Memories Dad's Crazy

Well that's odd. No Grade 3s to prep for the Grade 2/1 races? The same number of G2s as G1s? No listed Stakes? Hmmmm. That makes little sense and definitely does not jive with the guidance/mission of the graded stakes comittee. Maybe it's just off and/or is actually nested with the preps in Saratoga, so let's try Keeneland.

Track Grade Name
KEE 1 DARLEY ALCIBIADES S.
KEE 1 CLAIBORNE BREEDERS' FUTURITY
KEE 3(T)
DIXIANA BOURBON S.
KEE 3(T)
JPMORGAN CHASE JESSAMINE S.

So no grade 2? No prep for the Grade 1s on the main track? I'm really confused now. Are all the preps at Churchill?

Column1 Column2 Column3 Column4 Column5 Column6 Column7
6-Sep-14
G3 Iroquois CD 6-Sep $100k a 2yo 8.5f Dirt
G2 Pocahontas CD 6-Sep $200k a 2yo f 8.5f Dirt
3-Oct-14
G1 Darley Alcibiades Kee 3-Oct $400k g 2yo f 8.5f Dirt
4-Oct-14
G1 Claiborne Breeders' Futurity Kee 4-Oct $500k g 2yo 8.5f Dirt
5-Oct-14
G3 Dixiana Bourbon Kee 5-Oct $250k g 2yo 8.5f Turf
8-Oct-14
G3 JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Kee 8-Oct $150k g 2yo f 8.5f Turf
26-Oct-14
Rags to Riches CD 26-Oct $60k a 2yo f 8f Dirt
Street Sense CD 26-Oct $60k a 2yo 8f Dirt
29-Nov-14
G2 Golden Rod S CD 29-Nov $200k a 2yo f 8.5f Dirt
G2 Kentucky Jockey Club CD 29-Nov $200k a 2yo 8.5f Dirt

Huh? So there is no G3/G2 races to really support creating a true G1 field at Keeneland? Jeez, this is complicated.

So we can completely discard the "pyramid" principle insofar as the Juvenile division is concerned. That's an abject failure on the part of the committee. But I got it, let's move on.

So is there anyway to even say that the Grade 1s are really any kind of culmination of a series of races for juveniles? So what are the Grade 1s? I'd venture to say they are now two things:

  1. Relics from a bygone era when the Champagne et al were a championship of sorts prior to the establishment of the Breeders' Cup
  2. Completely disassociated from an actual concept where there are prep races to support the Grade 1 being a culmination or sorts to the stakes schedule for a meet or season

So how can we fix this? These Grade 1s are completely pointless in my mind. There is no buildup, no prep, no true competition. The G3 Schulerville at Saratoga drew 5 entrants for Friday's card, so clearly the system isn't working.

How do we fix it? That's ultimately the important thing to ask. And I have a simple solution. Use the calendar! I know, revolutionary, right?

Let's start by dividing the calendar up into chunks.

  1. Early Season (thru June 30) Includes Keeneland, Churchill, Belmont, Santa Anita
  2. Summer Season (July and August) Includes Saratoga, Del Mar
  3. Late Season (September and October) Includes Keeneland, Santa Anita, Churchill
  4. Post Season (Post-BC to December 31) Whatever is left

Coincidentally, as the 2yos mature, this works out pretty well. So what can we do by each segment of the calendar. Maybe something like this:

  1. No stakes races
  2. Only Listed races due to the lack of development and a lack of depth to the division
  3. No Grade 1s, as these races would still likely have both maidens and winners of just a maiden race in them, which (to me) nearly invalidates a Grade 1 since many runners have not proven themselves in any sense or approximation of the word
  4. Grade 1s allowed, but only in conjunction with at least one other graded prep race on the meet's schedule.

Juveniles are a particular case as well. This schedule (or any approximation thereof) only works in this division since the animals are still maturing, and awarding graded races to those runners that are facing such a small percentage of the total population of runners is absurd. In most cases, winning a graded stakes race as a juvenile is not an example of the best horse beating the rest, but merely of the most mature horse beating those that are not actually of stakes quality. Even looking at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile a few years ago, I found that a significant number of those entrants never appeared in stakes company of any relevance again. Check out that sweet article here.

So are we just awarding Grade 1 status because it is a separate division? Well if that is the justification, I don't think it holds any water. Other divisions struggle to get a Grade One (think Turf Sprint...) until Breeders' Cup rolls around, yet the Graded Stakes Committee has 12 non-BC Grade 1s for 2 years olds? That makes no sense.

There are three other factors that go into why the juvenile competition is so weak throughout most of the calendar. First is that there is a recent trend of big time connections holding on to their well-bred 2yos in order to run them at Saratoga and Del Mar. Second is the Derby Points System. There is no scramble to acquire graded stakes earnings when the pickings are easy since they count for little to nothing come May. So many well regarded 2yos are debuting later in order to focus on the Derby Trail (which is for the better, if you ask me). Third is the yearly crop size of 2yos has dropped by nearly 50% in the past decade but the stakes schedule has not contracted to match the lack of runners. Normally, with older horses, this isn't that much of a problem, but with 2yos, where you have so many fewer runners since they may just not be ready to run yet, you have horrific field size and quality issues.

Nothing I've said is new or groundbreaking. It merely applies a touch of common sense to the process which seems to be grounded in principles that the Committee doesn't even pretend to follow. So let's fix it.

Rant complete.

h/t to bloodhorse.com for their stakes calendar, to Wikipedia for the results of the various races, and to the Graded Stakes committee for their stakes listing.