Quality is the New Black - By Eric Mitchell

On Jan. 1, 2014, 177 North American stakes will lose their black-type status and more races are headed for the chopping block in the years ahead.

The winners and placers of these races in 2014 and beyond will lose the right to have their names literally appear in heavy bold-face type on an auction catalog page because the quality of the competition has fallen below a new minimum standard.

Who cares about black type? Breeders, owners, and sales companies. Black type was created as a way to identify easily on a catalog page the most prestigious horses in a family. Stakes winners’ names are in heavy bold-face type (MUCHO MACHO MAN) and all capital letters, while stakes-placed runners are in bold-face type and mixed case (Casiguapo).

A horse with a lot of black type in the family has a higher-quality pedigree and is therefore worth more.

But not all stakes races are equal in quality, and the disparity is great among the non-listed stakes, which is why the North American International Cataloging Standards Committee (NAICSC) began requiring both listed and non-listed stakes to be evaluated.

There are three basic classes of black-type stakes races in North America: graded stakes, listed stakes, and non-listed. Graded stakes are the most prestigious, typically offering the most purse money and attracting the highest-quality horses. Grade I races are at the pinnacle with a minimum purse of $250,000, followed by grade II (minimum purse $150,000) and grade III (minimum purse $100,000). Graded stakes have their status assigned by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association’s American Graded Stakes Committee, which evaluates all races annually and determines if any grades need to be added, changed, or removed.

Listed stakes are like graded stakes because they are open stakes (no restrictions besides by sex) with a purse of $75,000 or more, but are “listed” because they don’t have a grade. Listed stakes can be granted graded status if they meet the right criteria by purses and quality of competition.

Then there are non-listed stakes, with purses with a minimum of $50,000 (most fall between $50,000 and $74,999) that can be open stakes or restricted stakes, meaning the horses allowed to run meet one or more of four allowable restrictions—state-bred status, sale graduates, progeny of specific stallions, or non-winners of a stakes.

Black-type status used to be determined solely by purse money. With the proliferation of racinos (racetracks that also operate on-site casinos) and stand-alone casinos contributing to purse accounts, money became no object in creating several hundred non-listed, black-type stakes. Through Dec. 31 of this year, the U.S. has 1,397 non-listed stakes. The U.S. is actually the only country in the racing world to recognize non-listed stakes with black type.

As the number of minor stakes grew, the NAICSC became concerned about protecting the integrity of the black-type label.

“Our percentage of black type is not out of line with other countries,” said Carl Hamilton, chairman of the NAICSC. “But we want to recognize the correct types of races for black type. It is more a focus on the quality.”

For non-listed stakes, the evaluation is automated. A non-listed stakes will remain eligible for black-type status provided it meets or exceeds a predetermined Race Quality Score, which is a statistical compilation of speed figures from Bloodstock Research Information Systems (BRIS), Daily Racing Form (Beyer), Equibase, and Thoro-Graph for the top four finishers in a race. There is a different RQS for each of six age/sex categories—male and female categories for 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, and 3-year-olds and up. For an existing race, if its three-year rolling average RQS is below the minimum and its RQS for the most recent running is below the minimum, then the race loses its black-type status for two years. The race can regain black-type status after two years and when the three-year rolling RQS exceeds the minimum score.

Stakes restricted by state-bred status will be hit hard, considering they make up 38% of all non-listed stakes and will make up 56% of the stakes losing their black-type status next year.

Some listed stakes are vulnerable, too, because the AGSC begins evaluating them this year as it does the graded stakes and will demote listed stakes to non-listed black-type status for any that don’t meet the minimum standards. Then if as a non-listed stakes it continues to fall below the minimum RQS for its classification, the race would lose its black-type status altogether.

It will cause some discomfort among commercial horsemen as the opportunities for black type begin to fade, but in the long run black type on a catalog page will become more meaningful—and more valuable.

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