The American Graded Stakes Committee (under the aegis of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association) downgraded the Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial for 2017 from Grade I to Grade II. The decision is analytics-based: each race is statistically evaluated for the quality of the fields that competed in the previous five editions.
With the downgrades, there are now three Grade I races for 3-year-olds leading up to the Kentucky Derby: the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby, and Santa Anita Derby.
In any statistically-driven model, the independent variable(s) selected determines the outcome (i. e., the dependent variable). In the case of rating a horse race, the sole independent variable is the quality of the field, as determined by how well the entries did in winning subsequent races, and the dependent variable is the grade deserved—I, II, III, or no grade.
The Blue Grass Stakes has gradually lost quality for two major reasons. First, beginning in 2006, the Blue Grass was run on Keeneland’s synthetic surface until Keeneland replaced it with dirt in time for the fall meet in 2014; trainers with leading Triple Crown contenders often bypassed the Bluegrass Stakes and opted instead for the Derby prep races on dirt tracks. Second, the date for the Florida Derby was moved to early April, so trainers in the eastern part of the United States did not need another prep race prior to the Kentucky Derby and west coast trainers could continue to send their horses to the Santa Anita Derby, also held in early April. Similarly, competition from the Florida Derby has recently cannibalized the fields for the April-run Wood Memorial.
Downgrading the Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial to Grade II races has not been popular among industry insiders and in the racing media. However, in order to avoid making the downgrades, the American Graded Stakes Committee would have had to override its own statistical model. That would have introduced human subjectivity and politics into the Committee’s decision making for every race in the United States competing for a particular graded status.
For any grading system to be fair and equitable and have integrity, it must be adhered to in an even-handed manner, with no preferential treatment given to anyone. The American Graded Stakes Committee appears to be following that policy, irrespective of criticism.
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