The Retro-Graded Stakes Formula

A considerable amount of racing chatter recently has been about the quality of certain graded stakes races and how their winners have been little more than (well-)paid workouts for the horses and their connections. I’m inclined to agree – top class races should attract many horses of a certain caliber but the graded stakes field size is, on average, one of the smallest in the sport. (Allowance races are not far behind – claiming and lower-level turf races attract the largest fields).

What’s at issue here is “black-type”: when a horse (or his/her progeny) go to sale, having placed in a graded-stakes race can mean a considerable premium to their auction price. This makes total sense – thousands of horses of all ages are sold each year and the bold, sometimes ALL-CAPS,  font in the sales catalog allows buyers to assess the potential class of the [yearling/two-year-old/mare/stud prospect] they are buying at a glance without reviewing a lifetime of past performances. It’s an elegant solution to a problem that existed before the Internet and electronic data was a thing, and retains some value to this day.

The American Graded Stakes Committee (AGSC) is the “be-all-and-end-all” determiner of what races get the vaunted Graded Stakes designation, those that can get the BOLD CAP font in a sales catalog. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) controls this designation, of which their policies can be found here. To their credit, the AGSC has been quite responsive to upgrading the designation of races that have shown considerable improvement in the quality of horses running in them over the years. The best example, given my familiarity with them, is the upgrade of the Arkansas Derby for 3 year olds to Grade 1 status and its preps (the Rebel and Southwest) to G2 and G3 status, after the likes of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin used the Oaklawn route to prep for later classic wins.

My main criticism of the AGSC is that, while they have been responsive to upgrades, they have been much less so to downgrading races that haven’t been as good. It’s a natural response for well-meaning decision-makers: demonstrable class deserves and upgrade, suspect class deserves just one more chance. That bias has produced what I would call class “creep” whose end result is too many graded stakes with too small fields and, frankly, too many horses earning graded black-type. The AGSC uses “gut feel” more than data to determine the top quality races, which has contributed to the bias.

The main trend driving this is the declining North American foal crop, which has shrunk from a high of 40,000 in 1990 to 25,000 this past year (Source). The number of Graded Stakes has remained steadily above 450 for the last seven years despite the falling foal crop and the number of races run in North America. This means its roughly 40% easier today to earn black-type than it was just a few years ago. The AGSC has not been responsive enough to these trends; the impact is that black-type means less and less.

The fix I propose leverage the unique power of the age in which we live – use the vast information collected about races, and the past and future performance of the horses that run in them, to determine black-type. More importantly, tie the total number of graded stakes to a reasonable estimate of the foal crops eligible for those races. Lastly, tie the earning of black-type from placing in a graded stakes not to the horse’s placing, but the number of contenders the placing horse beat to earn it. What results is what I call the Retro-Graded Stakes Formula. These are the guidelines I’d suggest:

  • In 2006, roughly 100,000 thoroughbreds (3 years of foal crops) would have been eligible for graded stakes eligibility, or roughly 1 GS for every 210 born (100K/475) . Let’s be generous and say that a GS win should be available for every 200 foals.
  • Black-type is especially valuable for fillies and mares, but their graded stakes representation is outsized compared to the open races for which they are eligible. If fillies and mares are eligible for all graded stakes, but colts, geldings, and horses are eligible for all, then gender-restricted graded stakes should represent just one third (33%) of all graded stakes – currently, 41% of Graded Stakes are gender-restricted.
  • Many graded stakes are age-restricted, so tying them to the eligible foal crop makes sense. For 2- and 3-yos in a foal crop of 24,000, that means just 120 graded races to split between the 2- and 3-year-old races, and only 40 for fillies and mares. Currently, there are 184.
  • Open company races, having a larger eligible foal crop, would get a majority of the graded stakes races. This aligns with the industry desire (supposedly) for keeping horses running at a later age.
  • Field size matters in a stakes race – it is easier to place in a 5-horse field than an 8-horse field, naturally. To earn black-type, require that a horse beat at least 60% of the field they are in. For a 4-horse race, only the winner earns black type. In a 5- to 7-horse race, top 2. Only in a field of 8 or more can an ITM guarantee black-type.
  • The total number of graded stakes would shrink to the foal crop of 3-4-5 year olds/200 (roughly 360, based on 2011-2013)  but distributing those more to open company races versus any kind of restriction. If there are 120 age-restricted races, there would be 240 without.

The above proposals are conditions that the AGSC could implement today. The biggest change, however, would be to use the past and future performances of race horses to determine the true class of a race. This would take some doing. The RGSA would assign a provisional class to a race before its run based on its current historical standing, determined by prior class of the horses in it. For example:

  • A race could be graded a PG[1,2,3], meaning a Provisional Grade 1 (2 or 3) based on the level of horses who have run in it, and their subsequent performance. Minimum purse sizes would be required – the AGSC gets this right.
  • After a suitable period of time, probably 3-6 months, the race would be graded RG[1,2,3] , again based on both the past and subsequent performance of its entries. The total number of RG races will be tied to the eligible foal crop for that race.
  • One revision to a races grade would be allowed should multiple horses from the race go on to greater things.
  • Ungraded stakes could get bumped to RG status (and future PG status) if multiple performers win subsequent RG contests.
  • Allowance level races with multiple past and future RG performers could get special “Key Race” status that could be noted in a catalog page.

I am not suggesting that the AGSC adopt these changes; though that might be ideal, it would be too radical a change. I’m saying that any group with data and sufficiently publicity could use the RGSF to challenge the status quo with regard to the class of sales horses. The AGSC has no competition – it’s time they had some.

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