Laying a New Foundation - by Eric Mitchell

Traditionally stakes races have been the benchmark of quality in Thoroughbred racing.

Earnings are important, too, with the accepted criteria for ranking the leading sires year to year continuing to be the purse money earned by their progeny. But when assessing a horse’s status as an athlete or its potential to be a successful stallion or broodmare, the stakes winners are most valued.

Not all stakes, however, are equal in importance, and wanting to identify a way to measure the quality of one stakes against another is natural in a sporting industry driven by competition. Fulfilling this need is the impetus behind the creation of “black type,” the convention by which stakes winners’ names are identified in all capital letters and bold type and stakes-placed horses in mixed case and bold type.

Categorizing North American stakes by quality began at the top with graded stakes in 1973 and led to assigning stakes to one of three distinct groups: graded, listed, and non-listed. The challenge then became applying as equitable a standard as possible to the stakes falling within their specific categories.

Setting this standard is no easy feat because the quality of the competition in a given race regularly changes as do the habits of trainers and the business practices of racetracks. Look at how the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) changed the landscape of Derby prep races by awarding no points to the Illinois Derby (gr. III). The Hawthorne Race Course stakes was worth $750,000 in 2013, went to $400,000 in 2015, and wasn’t run at all in 2016.

To address these changes, graded stakes and listed stakes are evaluated annually by the American Graded Stakes Committee which monitors the quality of the fields to be sure they continue to meet the standard that a grade I, II, III, or listed status indicates.

Quantifying the quality of non-listed stakes was trickier in part because there are so many in the United Stakes and Canada, about 1,200 scheduled over the past two years. To address this category of stakes, the North American International Cataloguing Standards Committee implemented an automated tracking system that assigns every race a quality score based on a composite of four different speed figures for the top four finishers. For a race to earn or maintain black-type status, its quality score now has to meet a minimum standard (see page 20).

With quality control in place in all stakes categories, black type will now become the statistical foundation of the Blood-Horse’s most important annual reference guide, Stallion Register. All statistical pages beginning with the 2017 edition will follow black-type rules, with historical information recalibrated to this standard so all the information presented is consistent with what appears on sire lists or what a buyer would see in an auction catalog.

Black-type rules are used worldwide by auction houses that are members of the Society of Thoroughbred Auctioneers (SITA) to identify the best horses in a pedigree and is the standard breeders best use to assess racing class.

Breeding the next big stakes winner or even trying to pick them out at a sale is hard enough. At minimum, the statistics by which we monitor their success and the successful performers within their pedigrees should follow a uniform and consistent standard.

No one performance or single metric will ever capture the entirety of a horse’s quality or potential, which is the reason Stallion Register will continue providing a range of vital analysis by crop, by racing year, and within the commercial markets. Putting its rich content on a black-type foundation ensures the book remains a true measure of quality and a guidepost to success.

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