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. 


Leave a Comment:


An interesting proposition!  I would love to see that happen.  In fact, I would love see horses not run on any race-day medication in the future.  Maybe this is one way they could get things started.

Another idea I have is that the Breederscup should ban all race-day medications.  They should make it so that horses should not be carrying race-day medications in their systems 30 to 45 days prior to the Breederscup division race they are running in the Fall.  Once that gets into place, they should also enforce that further to the Breederscup Challenge races.  That should also help make mandatory to both trainers and owners that the racing authorities are quite serious on the matter and force them to not race their horses on the juice.  After all, I think it would be quite an extraordinary feat and an intriguing subject if a horse runs clean and wins impressively.  That will also show that there is true governance in the sport and will merit respect for their upholding the dignity and safety of the horse, breed, and of the sport.

15 Jul 2008 10:41 AM
Lory Phillips

I saw where Penn Gaming is starting processes at their properties. While I used both bute & lasix (disliked lasix) and felt bute helped with arthritic horses.I never liked giving lasix as it is hard on a horse.The use allows you to run back quicker after the iniatial episode but is it really the best treatment? The best is time to heal and recover.

Are we making JUNKIES out of our horses?

15 Jul 2008 12:39 PM

I agree with you, Lory Phillips.  I think it is ridiculous that we depend upon the drugs to make our horses better than they really are.  Who knows if any of the horses of the past are really better than they are since they depended upon the drugs.  And I'm talking about the past 15 years or so.

And who knows...Trainers use race-day medications/ steroids as the horse is training, even after a recovery.  So the handicapper doesn't know that the horse has been training on an injury, but can't feel it because of the medication.  That to me is very alarming.  The training could damage the horse even more!

15 Jul 2008 3:04 PM
Pauxatauny Phill

The fact is that none of this will happen until Kentucky bans steroids. The Kentucky Derby is the premier race in America and Maryland can not take the chance that the Derby winner will be unable to run in the Preakness. That is the real reason that Maryland broke ranks with Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia this spring when those states imposed steroid bans. As soon as Kentucky gets on board, everyone else will follow. Wake Up!!

15 Jul 2008 5:33 PM

That is a very true statement, Pauxantauny Phill.  I haven't even heard or read about Virginia imposing the steroid ban.  And I live in the state!  That really makes me embarrassed as a Virginian.

Unfortunately, we are all being "blackmailed" by Kentucky right now.  If Virginia does step up to the plate and ban steroids, then we lose a lot of good horses running here because they can go elsewhere and use the juice.  Kentucky, you need to do something!  If you say that you are the premiere state of the sport, then act like it and take full responsibility of the consequences if you continue this injustice to the horse and to the sport!

16 Jul 2008 12:24 AM

if its good for Horse Racing JUST DO IT...let's cut the BS & STAY BUSY...can't wait to see #12 as its been a long time comming & its going to be a long time GONE...Long Live The King!!!ps hello Ms. Maggie...Kentucky can't believe whats happening to HORSE RACING! & believe me its good...u gotta love this way of LIFE !!!

16 Jul 2008 6:17 AM

Bellwether, I'm actually confused as to what you are saying.  The way it sounds, you are anticipating for the twelfth Triple Crown winner, but in the same sentence "its going to be a long time GONE" sounds like you don't want ever there to be a twelfth Triple Crown winner.  And what does "Long Live The King" mean in terms to American racing?  And you think what's happening to horse racing right now is good?  Are you talking about all the bad stuff, the decline of interest, etc. in the sport?  "u gotta love this way of LIFE !!!" does that pertain to the fact that you don't mind the fact that our horses are being juiced?  Your wording is very contradictory and there isn’t any suitable evidence to back it up.

Oh yeah, P.S.  I don't like to be called "Ms."  I am a Miss.

16 Jul 2008 12:06 PM

I totally support the ban of race day medication.  The one thing I can't stand about this sport is watching an impressive race and wondering, "was that horse juiced?"

There is, however, something I oppose.  Do not remove Lasix from racing.  I'm sure someone here has watched their horse come back from a tough race bleeding out the nose, and I'm positively sure that there are some racing stars out there right now who would never have been able to display their talent without Lasix.

16 Jul 2008 10:21 PM

McPeek is a genius, to me this would basically kill steriods in horse racing unless some moroan tries to bend the rules.

16 Jul 2008 10:29 PM

I think that racetracks should also not be allowed to carry the state bred condition. For example a small racetrack like Finger Lakes whose stakes are only state bred stakes, could become a bigger racetrack without the stupid state bred restriction. If there is a reason as to why some racetracks just have state bred stakes please tell me why.

16 Jul 2008 10:32 PM
The Greek

Huh, The answer is easy, they would not be able to fill races if they didn't have the state breds.

17 Jul 2008 12:20 PM
Lory Phillips


not all breeders have access to the Fl,Ky & CA. sires-state breds allow small breeders like me to stay in the business.This purse increase as well as breeder awards allow us to upgrade to better sires and mares in hopes of that good horse that can compete in open

races,we have aneas-gold case and precocity in my area but they are still priced out of my range-I can breed one mare at their prices but that is tough if you have one colt injured-takes away your whole crop.

maggie- yes some need lasix but how many are on it just because everyone else gives it?first time one runs an off race next time out it will be on it.not good.

17 Jul 2008 1:11 PM

To Ms. Maggie...we own four beautiful T-Breds in Maryland...we would love to be #12 to try for TC & #12 to win it...we will have a shot...Long Live The King has been about Horse Racing since the way thats why i like to throw in Long Live The Dirt as it will prove to be better than the all weather surface''s been a long time comming(THE RENAISSANCE OF HORSE RACING IN AMERCIA THEN THE WORLD!!!)& a long time gone...Crosby, Stills , Nash &'s damn sure our way of you know what BELLWETHER means?...LLTK!!!

18 Jul 2008 7:07 AM

Lory Phillips, I know "some" horses need Lasix, but how come the horses of the past never seem to have any problem running?  None of the great horses - Domino, Bold Ruler, War Admiral, Nasrullah, etc. - ever had any trouble, mostly because they were indeed the best without the help of race-day medication.  They didn’t need the stuff to show that they were great; they did it on hay, oats, and water (just like Babe Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer).  What irks me the most is when handicappers and bettors point out that "the horse is getting first time Lasix so he'll improve off of that last one."  Doesn't that make it sound that the horse gets more of an advantage and an edge over the field, even though every horse out there runs on the juice?  Are we not all guilty of letting this continue because we also see it as a betting advantage?  I have read articles on the BloodHorse and on DRF where a veterinarian came out (can't remember the name or the title of the article for the life of me) saying that Lasix doesn't even help the horse but only enhances the actual performance.  Alarming, is it not?  If horses need it because of an injury or need to recover, the horses should not be any kind of training or must not be running in any kind of race.

As I said, Bellwether, I go by Miss Maggie.  I am single; therefore, it's the correct English to call me "Miss."  And good luck accomplishing that feat!  Just keep in mind that the Triple Crown isn't as easy as we Americans thought it was back in the 1970s.  We were spoiled in that decade, and absolutely grew arrogant that we should be pumping more Triple Crown winners.  Time and the racing gods reprimanded us severely for thinking in that manner by cursing us a long drought.  Respect the grueling series and be humble as you go into it.  God Bless your four horses in their task and on their journey, and may they become the wind and spread eagles wings!

18 Jul 2008 10:51 AM

As much as I am almost 20, I dislike the use of chatspeak...

And "bellwether" means someone or anyone who steps up and takes the lead or the initiative to make a statement for anyone to follow, or a trend maker.

18 Jul 2008 11:02 AM

In response to Bellwether's comments:

Lory Phillips, I know "some" horses need Lasix, but how come the horses of the past never seem to have any problem running?  None of the great horses - Domino, Bold Ruler, War Admiral, Nasrullah, etc. - ever had any trouble, mostly because they were indeed the best without the help of race-day medication.  They didn’t need the stuff to show that they were great; they did it on hay, oats, and water (just like Babe Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer).  

How do you  or anybody else know that is all they ran on ?  In fact, I seriously doubt it !!!!

18 Jul 2008 1:58 PM

I think McPeek has a great idea to start the ball rolling. If the industry can just get the ball rolling, it is easier to gain momentum.

18 Jul 2008 2:48 PM

If racing wants to help itself then ban all drugs, Bute, Lasix whch is the absolute worst,Steroids and throw anyone off the track that is caught milkeshaking one.

16 Aug 2008 10:59 AM

Our trainers need more than a slap on the wrist and a vacation when they abuse the horse with steroids and drugs.  In Korea they are banned for life, maybe a little extreme but we certainly  need to make trainers accountable.

22 Aug 2008 11:02 AM


24 Sep 2008 11:36 PM

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