Is Racing Failing the Grade?

January 15, 2023

Epicenter winning the 2022 Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. (Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges Jr.)

By Laura Pugh

Grading races is useless. 

Every year we sit, waiting on the Graded Stakes Committee to put out a list. A list that all but determines the future success of certain races. Each and every year, we are baffled by the decisions made. 

Grade ones that shouldn’t be grade ones that either remained that status despite years of not drawing grade one quality fields, or races elevated that have no business being elevated. Then, on the other scale… so many races that aren’t elevated that should be. For those wondering what I mean… Just look at some of fellow contributor, Ashley Tamulonis’ series “Looking at the Graded Stakes Revisions.”

This isn’t the first time that writers have evaluated the decisions made by the Graded Stakes Committee, and honestly, it won’t be the last… Even though it should be. 

We need to stop taking the opinions of the Graded Stakes Committee seriously. Every passing year, the decisions show that there is very little logic, rhyme, or reason that goes into what grade a race gets. 

Do we remember how long the Arkansas Derby and the Delaware Handicap took to become Grade ones? Both races drew top horses several years in a row and continued to be rated Grade 2’s… while races like the Wood Memorial and Santa Monica ran as grade 1’s for years, despite drawing subpar competitors year after year. 

In 2018, the Stephen Foster was hastily downgraded from a grade one to a grade two… meanwhile races like the Santa Anita Handicap remained at a grade one level despite inconsistent field quality. Just this year the Foster was finally restored back to a grade one status. 

In the 3-year-old division, races like the Louisiana Derby remain a Grade two… despite producing horses like Epicenter, Hot Rod Charlie, and Gun Runner in its more recent history. The Blue Grass Stakes, however, is a grade one, and remained that way for years even during the synthetic era when It never produced a single Derby winner. 

The Blue Grass Stakes was also a Grade two from 2016 to 2021. In 2022 it was upgraded to a grade one… the Louisiana Derby remaining as a grade two, with the only conceivable reason for the upgrade being that it attracted Essential Quality and Good Magic during the time it was downgrade. During the same timeframe The Louisiana Derby produced Gun Runner and Hot Rod Charlie, yet one remains a grade two while the other is sitting pretty as a grade one. 

I could get into the grades given to juvenile races, but that could take all day. 

The point is, we need to overhaul the system. Maybe we trash grades entirely, maybe we don’t grade a race until after it’s been run, but one thing is for sure… This can’t continue. This system is a popularity contest and does nothing but cause confusion when it comes to year end championships, by giving connections to pad their horse’s resume with soft “Grade Ones.”

It’s time to throw this system out and come up with a new one. 

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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