Stacked Up - By Evan Hammonds

The year has been an interesting one so far, don’t you think? Despite a myriad of concerns for the Thoroughbred breeding and racing community, one relatively esoteric issue has come to mind: North America’s stakes schedule for the second half of 2020.

Without racing since about mid-March in most of the country, the racing programs in New York, California, Kentucky, and elsewhere other than Florida and Arkansas have been compromised. While it is of utmost importance to return to as healthy a daily purse structure from top to bottom as possible, racing at the upper echelon is also a concern.

Last week the American Graded Stakes Committee announced it would drop minimum purses at the grade 1 and grade 2 levels—a smart move to keep the purses ball rolling. While racing will return in Maryland and New York, other areas might not snap back so quickly. Also, last week Penn National Race Course announced the cancellation of the $500,000 Penn Mile Stakes (G2T). Questions abound in other jurisdictions, including racing in Illinois this summer at Arlington International.

Questions, too, abound regarding a basket of graded races that weren’t contested this spring. Aside from the West Coast, we wonder about Keeneland’s canceled April meet, stakes from Churchill Downs that weren’t contested on the first Friday and Saturday in May, and stakes on the Preakness Stakes (G1) undercard from Pimlico (the main event at least being run Oct. 3), among others. If the stakes are crammed into the summer and fall programs, will there be enough “social distancing” on the calendar to squeeze them in while also being able to maintain a certain quality level?

It is encouraging to know that the AGSC has been thinking about it quite a bit.

“The graded stakes committee has had several video conference meetings over the course of the last month and a half to discuss the continually evolving, constantly changing nature of the Thoroughbred racing landscape,” said Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, which oversees the AGSC (and a co-owner of BloodHorse).

“It goes without saying we’ll meet more this year than the last five years combined,” said TOBA board member Everett Dobson, who also chairs the AGSC.

“That is part of our charge—to assess the quality. We essentially are a ‘look back’ committee,” Dobson said. The AGSC uses racing data from the last five racing seasons to determine the quality of a race. “We don’t try to judge the effect of where a race is positioned or how it’s run other than we look back at that race to consider the future effects of the grading of that particular race. In December we’ll look at this year, and it will be unprecedented and hopefully just a one-year anomaly; it will be one point of the data set, but it won’t be everything. I’m optimistic the strength will remain across all of the categories. But it is definitely going to be a wait-and-see process.

“The preference would be that the tracks would come up with a reasonable pattern, if you will, on these specific races, which they can request to move,” Dobson continued. “Our bylaws allow for us to remove a graded status if a race is moved more than 30 days on the calendar. We are taking all of those races case by case, and fortunately we have five racing secretaries that are on our board. We have a fair amount of dialogue, and so far they have come up with very reasonable requests.”

“I believe the races that have been canceled this year won’t be held against them (the grade and/or status) if they don’t run,” Metzger added. “There is going to be as much forgiveness and being reasonable as possible.”

With the New York Racing Association being given the green light to open June 1, expect their stakes schedule soon. Keeneland is hopeful to run a few days this summer, so it is of interest as to what their plans are, along with Churchill’s.

“I think everybody is trying to make it work the best they can, but there will be conflicts,” Metzger conceded. “There is no way to avoid it, but I think there has been a wonderful spirit of cooperation among racing officials I know who have discussed this through the AGSC, but they all have their constituents to listen to. Right now most people are just happy that racing is resuming in those jurisdictions.

“Everybody has been transparent and open and trying to get through this. Everybody in the business wants to get out of this crisis on the other side and do right by the industry.”

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