Dobson: This Was Not The Year For ‘Big Changes’ In Graded Stakes Program

There’s usually lots of teeth gnashing when the American Graded Stakes Committee announces its changes each December, but this year’s press release from the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association – the group that organizes the committee – was greeted with a collective yawn.

That’s a good thing.

There have been years when historically significant races are given a harsh reality check with a downgrade (i.e., the Hopeful and Ruffian going from G1 to G2 in 2012, the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial from G1 to G2 in 2017, or the Vosburgh and Santa Anita Oaks from G1 to G2 in 2020). This was not one of those years.

The biggest change was the elevation of the Saratoga Derby Invitational to Grade 1 from ungraded for its third running in 2021. No races were downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2.

Everett Dobson, chairman of the committee, told the Paulick Report the consensus of the 11 members was to take a cautious approach when grading for the 2021 racing season because of how the coronavirus pandemic affected the racing schedule and both domestic and international travel for much of the year.

“We didn’t feel this was the year to make big changes,” he said.

Dobson, who operates Cheyenne Stables and Candy Meadows Farm, pointed out that, while many races felt a negative impact from the pandemic, some tracks benefited when others were closed and forced to postpone or cancel some of their graded stakes.

The committee looks at the last five renewals of a race, so one good or bad year in terms of field quality will not make an overwhelming difference. But for those races that were run this year, the 2020 renewal will impact a race’s average quality for the next five years and probably deserves an asterisk as the committee continues its work going forward in the next four grading sessions.

Also, according to TOBA’s rules for the grading process, if a race “is substantially changed on the calendar (30 or more days), this will prompt a review and may result in a change of grade.” The committee can also change the grade of a race “if its distance is altered by more than one-eighth mile.”

I seriously doubt, however, if the Kentucky Derby or Preakness (moved by several months) or Belmont Stakes (shortened by three-eighths of a mile) were in danger of losing their Grade 1 status. Same goes for races that weren’t run in 2020 because of the pandemic.

“If races have not been run in two successive years they are not eligible for grading,” said Dobson, adding this caveat: “This year, if a race was not run because of COVID, we gave them an extra year.”

While the committee used the same criteria that’s been in place for many years (see end of this article for the TOBA Members Guide explanation), the pandemic did force the committee to work remotely via a two-day Zoom meeting instead of in person. As such, Dobson said, votes were done openly with a thumbs up or thumbs down whereas in the past they were done by secret ballot.

Additionally, just because some members of the committee are racing executives working for major tracks, Dobson said it would be wrong to conclude they vote in support of their own races when grade changes are under consideration.

“I can absolutely say they vote objectively,” Dobson said. “They work hard at understanding the big picture and do the best they can at leaving their biases at home when it comes to who they work for. They really help provide perspective. If a race looked particularly weak this time, what happened?

“In the case of New York,” Dobson continued, “some of their 2020 stakes races were weaker than they had been, but guess what? The Europeans couldn’t ship over. Being able to understand from the racing secretary what was going on as we try to analyze a race is very valuable as we make our decisions.”

Beyond the nuts and bolts of grading races, Dobson said, the committee takes a 30,000-foot view of the entire program.

For example, in 1989, there were more than 83,000 races run annually in North America and 378 graded stakes. In 2019, there were 40,800 races and 450 graded stakes in the U.S. That’s a 51% decline in races run but a 19% increase in the number of graded stakes.

“We spend a lot of time on that subject every year,” Dobson said. “We meet several times a year and that’s always the No. 1 topic when we talk outside of the grading session. The first thing we did was analyze the foal crop. It is declining, but if you look at the numbers from The Jockey Club website, it’s actually pretty stable in Kentucky (where the highest-quality foals are produced). Also, Kentucky-based stallions are now siring over 3,000 offspring foaled outside of Kentucky. Overall, the foal crop is down, but it’s not a direct correlation as to quality. You have to dig a little deeper into what Kentucky is doing, and what New York and Florida are doing as far as quality. Despite that, we have brought down the number of graded stakes (from its peak).”

From TOBA Graded Stakes Members Guide: Information supplied to the members of the Graded Stakes Committee includes statistical data for the last five years for all eligible races indicating quality of the field based on 1) points assigned for best performance in unrestricted black type stakes (see Appendix A); 2) percentage of graded stakes winners in the field; 3) quality points achieved (see Appendix A) 4) the official charts of the five most recent renewals; 5) North American Rating Committee (NARC) Ratings; and 6) Thoro-Graph ratings. In addition, each renewal is identified by division, grade, distance, surface, purse, and number of starters. Members are expected to utilize this data, together with the knowledge drawn from their own experience, to make individual judgments as to the relative merit of the eligible races. Eight affirmative votes are required to upgrade any race and six affirmative votes are required to downgrade a race.


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