By Ashley Tamulonis
On Friday, December 16 the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) announced its revisions to the graded and/or listed status of all U.S. stakes races with a purse of at least $75,000 for 2023.
Though the TOBA American Graded Stakes Committee reviews these races each year, a pattern has to develop in order for them to decide that a race needs to be upgraded or downgraded. While the committee reviewed 901 total races, the focus of this series will be the one race upgraded from grade two to grade one status and the five races downgraded from grade one status to grade two status. In a “what have you done for me lately?” type fashion, I have focused on the last five editions of each race, meaning we will be looking at the fields from the years 2018 to 2022.
As the only race promoted to Grade 1 status, we’ll start with the Stephen Foster. In future articles, we will discuss the downgrading of the Cigar Mile, Woodward, Clark, Starlet, and Rodeo Drive.
The Stephen Foster was last run as a top tier race in 2018 when Pavel won it. That would be his only grade one victory, though he was a multiple graded stakes winner. Included in the field were multiple graded stakes winners Honorable Duty, Matrooh, and Irish War Cry. Honorable Duty and Irish War Cry along with Patch and Lookin At Lee were also grade one placed, the first duo with multiple grade one placings. Also part of the field were graded stakes winners Hawaakom and Backyard Heaven.
The Stephen Foster was downgraded to a grade two for the 2019 edition won by Seeking the Soul, who obtained his only grade one win in the 2017 edition of the Clark Handicap, which has been downgraded for 2023. Despite that, he was a multiple graded stakes winner and multiple grade one placed. Runner-up that year was grade one placed and graded stakes winner Quip. Tom’s d’Etat, also a multiple graded stakes winner and victorious at the top level, finished third. Included in that field were grade one winners Gift Box and Yoshida, who won earned top honors on dirt and turf. Graded stakes winners Runaway Ghost, Tenfold, and Rated R Superstar, the latter two of which were grade one placed also competed in the 2019 running.
Tom’s d’Etat took his third-place finish in the 2019 Stephen Foster and turned it into a victory in 2020; the son of Smart Strike earned his only grade one win in the 2019 Clark Handicap, which as previously stated has been downgraded for 2023. He beat multiple graded stakes winner and multiple grade one placed By My Standards to the wire with Silver Dust, also a multiple graded stakes winner, finishing third. Graded stakes winners Multiplier, Owendale, Fearless, and Pirate’s Punch, with the first two being grade one placed, were also included in the field.
Maxfield, the 2021 Stephen Foster winner, was a force with which to be reckoned. The son of Street Sense never finished out of the trifecta, with nine races being in graded stakes, and eventually got his elusive grade one win in the Clark later that year. Multiple graded stakes winner Warrior’s Charge nabbed the place but was later disqualified due to a failed drug test. Graded stakes winners Sprawl, Chess Chief, and Silver Dust were the best of the rest in terms of accomplishments. Otherwise, the rest of the field was comprised of graded stakes placed types.
Olympiad won this year’s edition of the Stephen Foster as the last of his five-race win streak. Two starts later he would get his only grade one victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He soundly defeated Americanrevolution, whose only graded stakes win came in the 2021 Cigar Mile (G1), which, like the Clark, has been downgraded for 2023. Checking in in third was Proxy, who would go on to get his first grade one triumph in this year’s Clark. Filling out the field was multiple grade one winner Mandaloun, winner of the Kentucky Derby via the disqualification of Medina Spirit, graded stakes winners Title Ready and Last Samurai, and grade one placed Caddo River.
The Committee promoting the Stephen Foster back to grade one status was absolutely the right call. Aside from the 2021 edition, which was fairly weak, the Stephen Foster continuously attracts competitive, grade one type competition. It’s perfectly placed in mid-June, though it was run on July 4th weekend this year, to be a big target coming off overseas races such as the Saudi Cup (Group 1) and the Dubai World Cup (Group 1). Even if runners aren’t returning stateside, having perhaps opted to run instead in the Pegasus World Invitational (G1) along with the year’s early grade 2’s and 3’s, it is still in a good place to serve as a jumping off point for some of the more important races, such as the Whitney and Jockey Club Gold Cup, later in the summer and into the fall.
In looking beyond the five year mark I set, I found it hard to believe the Stephen Foster had been downgraded to begin with. Previous winners include Breeders’ Cup Classic winners Curlin, Blame, Fort Larned, and Gun Runner. If some of those fields came up weak, it’s easy to see why. Today, the top runners typically avoid each other until the Championships roll around. We don’t often see true grade one fields like we did in this year’s Whitney (G1), so for the Stephen Foster to consistently bring together some of the best runners in the handicap division is telling. It was and still is an important late spring race and deserved to resume its place among the nation’s top races.
Photo: Tom’s d’ Etat wins the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, Coady Photography