Hangin’ With Haskin: Stakes and Chops

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Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes is one of two traditional Kentucky Derby prep races to recently get downgraded. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Let me start off by saying I respect any committee that has tough, and for the most part, unpopular decisions to make, and I’m sure the Graded Stakes Committee put considerable care and thought into their decisions this year.

With that said, there have been many, myself included, who were shocked by the committee’s decision to downgrade two of the most historic Kentucky Derby preps, the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, from Grade 1 to Grade 2. Yes, I’m sure the data and analytics the committee uses told them these two races have been unsuccessful in producing Kentucky Derby winners, and no one needs any computer results to know that the last Wood winner to win the Kentucky Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and the last Blue Grass winner to capture the roses was Strike the Gold in 1991. Those are long droughts for two such prestigious races.

Let’s look at the ramifications that have surfaced from these moves already. The three leading Derby contenders at this point – Classic Empire, McCraken, and Mo Town – had been pointing for either the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass Stakes. Now, trainer Mark Casse said he might have to reconsider with Classic Empire, who was heading for the Blue Grass, and Tony Dutrow said he might have to reconsider with Mo Town, who was heading for the Wood. Also, McCraken’s trainer Ian Wilkes is Kentucky-based, and he and his longtime teammate Carl Nafzger have always run their Derby horses in the Blue Grass. But will they now? So, that one decision could very well alter the plans of the three Derby favorites.

With that said, I could not help but think how deliciously ironic it would be if the trainers of all three horses decide to stick to their original plans and run in the Blue Grass and Wood despite the demotions and then finish 1,2,3 in the Kentucky Derby, making this one of the most ill-timed decisions in the history of graded stakes listings.

I understand that it’s not up to the committee to handicap the Derby in December. I also understand the Blue Grass Stakes has helped cause its downgrading by switching to Polytrack and attracting sub-standard fields for several years, and the Wood has suffered because many trainers are afraid of the weather possibilities, even though the Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby are just as likely to have a sloppy track. Trainers are just more reluctant to ship from Florida. Between Palm Meadows, Palm Beach Downs, Payson Park, and Gulfstream Park, there are just so many 3-year-olds training down there, and not many trainers want to risk shipping up north.

We all know most things in racing are cyclical, and both the Wood and the Blue Grass have produced some of the greatest horses in racing history, including two of the last four Triple Crown winners. But even I admit this has been a long cycle.

With those two races now Grade 2 stakes and trainers contemplating a change in plans with their Derby horses, that means that the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Arkansas Derby likely would be top-heavy with major Derby contenders, leaving the Blue Grass and Wood with mediocre fields. That certainly will happen this year if the trainers of Classic Empire, McCraken, and Mo Town change their plans and go elsewhere.

A major reason for the lack of interest in the Wood and Blue Grass in recent years is that the changing of the date of the Florida Derby altered the entire fabric of the Derby prep structure. With trainers now going from the Florida Derby, and the Louisiana Derby, also run at a later date, straight into the Kentucky Derby, the Wood and the Blue Grass both lost their springboard races, as they used to attract their best horses from the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby. The Gotham Stakes, which is run on the Aqueduct inner track at a mile and a sixteenth, has little prestige and value, and there is no prep for the Blue Grass, so both races have now been attracting a vagabond group of horses from everywhere, few of which are major Derby contenders. Often, good horses will ship from Florida to New York when trainers like Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin have more than one Derby horse and do not want to run them against each other at Gulfstream.

Another question that should be asked is whether the downgrading of the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes is based solely or mainly on the record of their starters in the Kentucky Derby, or even the entire Triple Crown, as opposed to the overall caliber of horses to exit those races?

Classic Empire (Eclipse Sportswire)

In the last four years, the winners of the Wood have gone to win the Met Mile, Whitney, Haskell, Jim Dandy, and Pennsylvania Derby, and place in the Belmont Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Travers twice, including a nose defeat by Wicked Strong in 2014. Two Wood winners in the past three years did go on to finish a fast-closing fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Does all that really warrant the race, which has a 91-year history, being downgraded?

The Graded Stakes Committee for the most part is looking at this in black and white, and I’m sure they felt justified in their decisions. But shouldn’t there be history and tradition taken into consideration as well? Even in this progressive world, sometimes certain things are best left alone, especially if they have earned the right to be left alone because of their outstanding heritage.

If the committee feels its hand has been forced by whatever criteria they use, and NYRA and Keeneland believe they are victims of circumstance dictated by the actions of other tracks, then that seems to indicate there is nothing anyone can do to bring these two races back to prominence…except for one thing.

Once again, I must play the role of dinosaur. All I know is that if we keep downgrading races like the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, Mother Goose Stakes, Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps, Gulfstream Park Handicap, and Philip H. Iselin Handicap (formerly the Amory Haskell Handicap), among others, racing is going to revolve in good part around races that didn’t exist before 1980, such as the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Pacific Classic, Arlington Million, Pennsylvania Derby, and who knows, maybe even the Pegasus World Cup, and other races with $1 million purses and more.

Again, I am not trying to defend the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass based on their recent record, and I’m not even blaming the Graded Stakes Committee for ignoring history and tradition and doing what their data tells them. That is the racing world in which we live.

I am certainly not telling any trainer or owner what to do with their Derby horse. What I am doing is simply asking them to look at the Kentucky Derby preps as preps, regardless of their grade, and continue to follow what they feel is the best path to get their horse to the Derby. If Tony Dutrow is confident that Mo Town is a legitimate Derby contender and that the best place to prep for the big race is the Wood Memorial, there is the Derby or even the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to get your Grade 1 victory. Why go against your initial instincts and possibly compromise your chances in the one race you’ve been pointing to for seven months, just for the sake of winning a Grade 1 prep instead of a Grade 2? In the case of Classic Empire, his connections already have their Grade 1 win.

For Dutrow and Wilkes, they have the horse’s entire career to get that Grade 1 – and who knows, they might get it on the first Saturday in May if they stick to their original plan.

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