- Jeremy Plonk, Horse
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The 1-2-3 finishers of the La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs are all back in action this weekend, including Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. Plus we get the addition of none other than Zenyatta to the card. There's one small catch: These four horses are in four different races across the nation.
Why on earth there would be four graded stakes races for the same division of horses on the same weekend is not only beyond comprehension, it's reprehensible and avoidable. Congratulations to the boneheads from the racing offices who have managed to water down the Ogden Phipps, Vanity, Fleur de Lis and Obeah.
With most calling plans offering unlimited minutes, you'd think they could keep in touch. There are no excuses for this. Shame on Belmont Park, Hollywood Park, Delaware Park and Churchill Downs! As each fiefdom works to keep itself in the fore, it continues to forget that horse racing is not a local game anymore, it's national. Nearly 90 percent of your handle Saturday and Sunday will come from consumers who are not rolling over your turnstiles. Ninety percent of us don't care that this race is four weeks spread apart from your local division's next event on the stakes calendar. Keep making decisions for horsemen who have no loyalty to your circuit, but rather the next big purse, and see where that gets you.
For everything these four stakes races have in common, and there's plenty, the most important thing is their graded status. What's the big deal? The North American Graded Stakes Committee is one of the only weight-bearing organizations in horse racing with the clout to do anything whatsoever across state lines. Yank a grade from a stakes race and see what impact it has down the line. It's immense.
The graded stakes committee was called into action in regards to the steroid controversy in 2008, and implemented some "do this or you're not graded" measures. There's precedence for a dangling carrot known as graded-stakes status, and it works. Tracks that didn't already test for steroids or outlaw them soon did.
Quality horses will not enter a race that's not graded if they can run in one that is, unless we're talking about geldings. The graded stakes type on a stallion or broodmare prospect means everything, and there's far more money in the breeding shed than the racetrack for many stakes-caliber racehorses. Horses race until they are 5 years old, if we're lucky. They breed until they can get their driver's license, or longer.
Obviously the racetracks are not going to do anything about their idiotic scheduling. No way is NYRA taking a backseat to Churchill Downs, much less a one-time dump like Delaware Park that is now boosted by bouncing coins. Try telling Hollywood Park what's best for it because of a race 3,500 miles away. But, again, racetracks are incapable of thinking nationally. What they fail to realize is that 90 percent of wagering handle coming in from points A to Z is completely turned off by their five-horse parades of un-bettable-ness.
Geography is not an excuse for the stakes overlap. Look at the Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill, which features West Coaster Made For Magic on a road trip specifically to get the heck away from the Zenyatta monster. The top-shelf graded stakes horses can, and will, travel to find winning spots. But schedule four of them for basically the same purse at the same distance on the same weekend, and just where are they going to come from in the first place, much less end up?
The Phipps, Fleur de Lis and Obeah combined to draw just 18 unique entries. The Vanity will be drawn later on Thursday, but isn't expected to swell to any significant number with Zenyatta and synthetics freak Saint Trinians dominating the marquee. Imagine the sensational race that would be possible if these races weren't battling one another. I don't even want to put the RA and the Z initials in the same sentence for fear of an online riot of hatred, but you get my drift. Take those big two, add Saint Trinians, Unrivaled Belle, Funny Moon, Life At Ten, Made For Magic, Jessica Is Back, Taptam and War Echo, and you have a pretty stout race with no filler.
I understand there's no magic wand to create a national graded stakes schedule. Every state does not set its racing dates at the same time, much less the stakes schedule; some wait until a racing commission meeting, mere days or weeks before a meet is supposed to start. Obviously there are important factors such as purse levels and available funds in the account to card a track's stakes schedule. Nobody will dispute that and no organizational body should tell a free enterprise business when it can and can't run races. But common sense has to intervene.
Tracks rarely cancel graded stakes races no matter how bad the economic tides turn. There's no reason why racetracks cannot submit a scheduled wish list of potential dates for Grade 1 and Grade 2 races, which are smaller in number. With the help of a mediator like the North American Graded Stakes Committee, a national schedule could take some semblance of shape.
It may not solve everything, but next year when four tracks try to run the same kind of race on the same weekend, maybe a red flag will at least be raised and someone in a marketing and mutuels position at one of the tracks might have an epiphany and think, "Hey, this isn't such a good idea running against this much competition for horses and horseplayers."
And if the tracks don't want to separate their racing dates for the betterment of the nation at that point, then the national body can exercise its significant stroke. You want to run 'em on your dates? Feel free, without the grade, and see how that works out for your self-centered needs.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com. You can e-mail Jeremy your Top 20 contenders list, or any questions about the 3-year-old or national racing scene, at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.