The Week in Review: Graded Stakes Committee Shows NYRA No Love

Doppelganger winning 2023 Carter | Sarah Andrew


The American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association has done it again, announcing Saturday that it has reduced the number of graded stakes races that will be run in the U.S. in 2024, while also downgrading 30 races. To most, this is a welcome development. With the foal crop continually declining, there should be fewer graded stakes races and fewer Grade I's. Many believe that the committee has not gone far enough.

Yet, the announcement, as it always seems to do, did not come without a few head-scratching, controversial decisions, many of them leaving tracks to believe they have been treated unfairly. When the list of graded races for 2024 reached the New York Racing Association's executive offices there probably was a sense that they were being picked on. No tracks took it on the chin quite like the NYRA tracks did.

There will be 429 graded races in 2024, 11 fewer than there were this year. Thirty races were downgraded, and that's where NYRA was hit the hardest. Ten of those 30 races are run at NYRA tracks. They include the Carter H. and the Man o'War S., which were two of five races that were Grade I's that have been downgraded to Grade II's for next year. Ten races were downgraded from II's to III's and five of them are NYRA races. Three more NYRA races were dropped from Grade III's to listed races.

Ten races were upgraded, including three on the NYRA schedule.

It wasn't that long ago that the NYRA stakes schedule was the gold standard for the industry. But in 2024, NYRA will present a stakes schedule that looks nothing like what it offered during its glory days. It's not just the Carter and the Man o'War. The five NYRA stakes that have been dropped from Grade II's to Grade III's are the Forty Niner S., the Hill Prince S., the Vosburgh S., the Sheepshead Bay S. and the Prioress S. The Bay Shore S., the Fall Highweight H. and the Schuylerville S. all went from Grade III's to listed.

In 2022, it was announced that the 2023 runnings of the Cigar Mile S. and the Woodward S. were being dropped to Grade II's. Since 2016, NYRA has lost eight Grade I races. The list also includes the Wood Memorial S., the Flower Bowl S., the Beldame S. and the Vosburgh S. With the downgrading of the Carter for next year, there will no longer be any Grade I races run at what are the traditional Aqueduct meets.

Has the graded stakes committee treated NYRA fairly? Even with all the cuts, the answer, for the most part is yes.

A race like the Carter should have been dropped to a Grade II years ago. A quality horse in Vekoma (Candy Ride {Arg}) won the race in 2020, but recent winners (2021) Mischevious Alex (Into Mischief), (2022) Speakers' Corner (Street Sense) and (2023) Doppelganger (Into Mischief) are not Grade I material.

The Wood Memorial, once a premier prep for the GI Kentucky Derby and a Grade I through the 2016 running, has failed to keep up with the other Derby preps. You have to go all the way back to 2000 to find the last Wood winner to win the Derby, which was Fusaichi Pegasus (Mr. Prospector).  Since Funny Cide (Distorted Humor) won the 2003 Derby after finishing second in the Wood, the Wood has produced 41 Derby starters without a top three finish. Tacitus (Tapit) was moved up to third after Maximum Security (New Year's Day) was DQ'd in 2019.

This year's Cigar Mile, won by Hoist The Gold (Mineshaft), was not a Grade I quality race.

The one move by the graded stakes committee that makes no sense is how it has treated the Vosburgh. Named a Grade I in 1991 when it was won by Housebuster (Mt. Livermore), it remained a Grade I until 2019. The 2020 and 2021 runnings were nothing to get excited about, but the 2022 edition was won by Elite Power (Curlin), who would go on to win the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint and be named sprint champion. This year the race was won by Cody's Wish (Curlin), who came back to win the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and is the favorite to be named 2023 Horse of the Year. How do you take a race won in back-to-back years by Elite Power and Cody's Wish and downgrade it from a Grade II to a Grade III?

NYRA can't afford more of the same in the year's ahead. (How much longer can the historic GI Jockey Club Gold Cup maintain its Grade I status?)The problem with NYRA's stakes program is that it hasn't adapted to the times. There are simply too many stakes races on the schedule. You have a declining foal crop and you have trainers of top horses who are perfectly content to run them four times a year. The inevitable has happened. Field sizes for stakes races keep going down as does the quality, and that's why NYRA keeps getting hit by the graded stakes committee.

It's time for some tough love and to simply eliminate some races. A perfect example is its schedule for older male dirt horses from the late spring to the early fall. You start with the June 10 GI Metropolitan H., followed by the July 8 GII Suburban S., the Aug. 5 GI Whitney, the Sept. 2 GI Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Oct. 1 GII Woodward. That's five races in the same division over less than four months and that doesn't begin to take into account major races for older dirt males run elsewhere. There simply aren't enough quality horses to adequately fill all those races. Yes, the Suburban and the Woodward are historic races, but maybe it is time for them to go. The same goes for a half dozen or so other stakes.

NYRA still has a terrific stakes program, particularly at Saratoga, where the prestige of the races and the purses involved attract the very best horses in the sport. Every Grade I run there is a deserving Grade I. The card offered on the day of the GI Belmont S. is the second best day of racing in the sport, behind only the Breeders' Cup Saturday program. It's just the rest of the year where NYRA needs help.

The Brick Ambush Decision

Put 1,000 racing people in a room and ask them to watch Saturday's running of the Great White Way division of the New York Stallion Series at Aqueduct, and the verdict would be unanimous. All 1,000 would say the stewards got it wrong. In disqualifying Brick Ambush (Laoban) from second, the stewards not only made the wrong call they made a call that defies explanation. Anyone can see that. In no way did this horse bother anyone or have anything to do with the pile-up that resulted near the quarter-pole when three other horses banged into one another.

Yet, the stewards took down Brick Ambush. If you didn't know better, you'd think they didn't even bother to watch the race. It was, simply, a horrendous call, and it cost the horse's owners $100,000.

The stewards are no different than the rest of us. We all make mistakes. But the problem is, who holds them accountable when they do? Who is reviewing them and watching them? Is anyone in a position to fire or demote a steward when it becomes clear they're not up to the job? There doesn't appear to be. Separate from an appeal from owners Dean and Patti Reeves, the New York Gaming Commission needs to conduct a review into this race and any others where the stewards might have made an erroneous decision and decide whether or not the three stewards on duty Saturday need to be sanctioned in some way, even if that means they should be fired.

The disqualification caused a firestorm on X, with the vast majority questioning the stewards call, which seemed so obviously wrong.

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