Making the Grade - by Dan Liebman

A small group of trainers standing in the shedrow of the stakes barn at Pimlico the morning prior to Preakness day were discussing a myriad of problems facing the industry. It didn’t take long for the conversation to shift to medication, a topic on which every trainer has an opinion.

“There is a group that has the power to influence change on this issue,” trainer Ken McPeek said.

In racing, many ideas for change come along, and then the inevitable question arises: “Who can mandate that change?” The inevitable answer is almost always: “No one.”

In this instance, McPeek argued, that is not the case.

“All it would take is for the graded stakes (American Graded Stakes Committee) to take action.”

When the committee meets next month in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the 11 members could take a bold step. They could agree to mandate that for a race to be graded, certain medication guidelines must be met. Should a track decide it does not wish to comply, the result is simple: the stakes at that track—all of them—are ineligible to be considered for grading by the committee until such time as the track agrees to comply.

Period. No exceptions. No excuses.

“It would work,” McPeek said. “They have the power to make it work.”

McPeek is right.

The committee already has certain guidelines that must be followed. For example, a race must carry a minimum purse of $100,000 to be eligible to be a grade III race, $150,000 for grade II, and $250,000 for grade I. The race must have been run for several years under the same conditions and may not be restrictive by certain conditions.

It would not be a stretch, then, for the committee to phase in medication requirements. Perhaps it would agree to ban the use of all steroids for graded stakes beginning in January 2009, which would coincide with the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium’s timeline for states to have begun restricting steroid use.

Following that lead, the committee members, with solicited input from others, could discuss how far it wants to go in regard to other medications.

The guess is all tracks would rapidly embrace the changes in order to keep their races graded and help obtain initial grading for future races.

Hosting graded stakes is important to every track and track owner. So, while the adage remains true that “money makes the mare run,” owners are cognizant of which races are graded, and track owners realize the prestige of the grade can be a factor in an owner and trainer deciding which race to run in.

When Churchill Downs upped the purse of last month’s Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) from $750,000 to $1 million, it did so on the condition a previous grade I winner competed. This was done to help ensure the appearance of Curlin, but the key was the grading requirement.

The field for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) is limited to 20 starters, the determinant being purse monies earned in graded stakes (both here and abroad). The grading of races is a measure of racing class, thus success in graded races is one way to evaluate runners.
Just as a $50,000 claimer is judged to be better than a $10,000 claimer, a grade I winner is judged to be better than a grade III winner.

Interestingly, though the grading of races would appear to be a system for the racing industry, it is in fact more of a system for the breeding industry. Where grading really becomes important is on stallion register pages and in sale catalogs.

There is a group that can make this progressive change happen for an entire industry.

Ken McPeek is right. 

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