September Blues

When this past weekend’s Cotillion only drew 4 entries, the usual pre-Breeders’ Cup howl was heard among turf writers lamenting the disappearance of what used to be prime fall matchups of top 3-year-olds meeting their elders. Steven Crist in the Daily Racing Form observed:

It’s too bad that the Graded Stakes Committee has given Grade 1 status to restricted fall races such as the Cotillion……It’s just a shame that there aren’t clearer paths to championships that would bring together the sport’s best runners more than once a year.

Gary West, writing for ESPN, thought the Cotillion was missing intrigue:

Anyway, it’s embarrassing, but there it is: four horses racing for a million bucks in a Cotillion that has turned into something of a private dance party. And Saturday night, how many owners and trainers will regret not having entered?

What could be done to address this problem? One issue is that as the number of race days continues to shrink, the number of races awarded graded status by the American Graded Stakes Committee has not. The failure of the AGSC to recognize that fewer races should equate to fewer graded stakes threatens to cheapen the value of graded stakes. The chart below represents race days and the number of stakes awarded graded status by the AGSC since 2006.

Chart of Graded Stakes vs. Actual Races 2006-2011

As foal crops have declined, so has the number of race days for a total of 6,250 race days lost since 2006. Yet the number of stakes awarded graded status has remained level: 475 awarded in 2006 and 474 awarded in 2011. This failure to adapt to the new racing landscape has resulted in an increase of 14% in the number of races awarded graded status.

While it should be noted that through August of this year, the number of race days has increased 65 days over August of 2011, the double digit declines in foal crops for both 2010 (-11.8%) and 2011 (-11%) have yet to fully manifest themselves on the track in possibly fewer race dates. If the current trends from 2006 hold, this is what the above graph will look like in 2016.

Chart of Graded Stakes vs. Projected Races 2006-2016

This increase in the proportion of graded stakes awarded relative to the number of race days would result in a 23% increase in graded stakes – all just from doing nothing and hoping that “the markets can take care of a lot of this

While the prestige of the graded stakes lessens every year, the purses for 3-year-old restricted graded stakes continue to be out of line with overall graded stakes purses. An informal running of the numbers on the invaluable Thoroughbred Report, an aggregator of graded stakes results, reveals that while 29.8% of the non-Breeders’ Cup graded stakes run in 2011 were restricted to 3-year-olds, their share of the total non-Breeders’ Cup graded stakes purse pool was 38.3%.

Why leave out the Breeders’ Cup? As Crist noted, the Breeders’ Cup is the last sure refuge of the best 3-year-olds meeting their elders on the track because the purses are high and there are no 3-year-old restricted races on the menu (at least not yet!).

All of which makes the moving up of the Cotillion to a Grade 1 by the AGSC this year so puzzling. While the AGSC can do nothing about the purses for fall 3-year-old restricted stakes, it could take the drastic step of not awarding these races graded status. In 2011, there were 26 such graded stakes run from September through the end of the year. While eliminating them from graded stakes consideration might not result in a return to 3-year-olds meeting their elders in the fall more frequently, it would address the problems of cheapened graded stakes prestige and the inequitable share of restricted graded stakes purses for 3-year-olds.

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