The introduction of graded stakes races to harness racing is an issue that has gnawed away at owners, trainers, drivers and fans for a half-century, but we’re no closer to making it a reality today than we were back in the sixties. A survey that Tom White, one-time publicity director at The Red Mile and the Little Brown Jug, conducted on the topic more than three decades ago offers us some perspective. White concedes that his audit would not stand up to scientific scrutiny, but it certainly holds much anecdotal value. He wanted opinions on how to grade the slightly more than 2% of races that were not specifically for claimers or conditioned by earnings, age or sex. He sent a list of all unrestricted races—except by age and sex—to “40 knowledgeable harness racing representatives,” asking those folks to designate them as Grade 1, 2 or 3. He also allowed for a No Grade option. And 80% of them responded.
The powers that be in thoroughbred racing formulated a list of 330 graded stakes for 1973 and 1974; it was reduced to 276 in 1980. White used 69 races from the Standardbred calendar for his survey. Only 35 of 100 thoroughbred tracks in North America carded graded stakes in 1981. Last year’s precept that every open stakes race—regardless of how insignificant it is—come under the Grand Circuit umbrella, works against any sort of graded stakes paradigm in harness racing. Every track and publicity director’s race in the standardbred world is a Grade 1 as far as they’re concerned.
Four races, the Hambletonian, Jug, Messenger and Wilson drew perfect Grade 1 scores. The Wilson went away after the 2012 edition; of the other three, the Hambletonian would no doubt still get a perfect score, but I’m not sure about the other two. There’s a great deal of resentment over the fact that two legs of the Pacing Triple Crown—the Jug and the Messenger—are raced over half-mile tracks. Also, the Messenger lost much of its cachet when Roosevelt closed and the race embarked on a nomadic journey that now has it rooted at Yonkers Raceway. The purse is $500,000 but many owners and trainers keep their premium stock clear of half-mile tracks; All Bets Off, Ronny Bugatti and Bolt The Duer won the last three. The Jug doesn’t engender as much enmity as the Messenger, but there are plenty of harness racing aficionados who discount it as a post position crap shoot.
Races that came within one or two votes of a perfect Grade 1 score in the 1981 survey are the Meadowlands Pace, Kentucky Futurity, Cane, Yonkers Trot, Adios, Oaks and Fox Pace. Only one individual labeled the Meadowlands Pace a Grade 2 stake, and certainly it would fall solidly in the Grade 1 column today. The same goes for the Kentucky Futurity. The Cane, which was shown the door by the Rooneys after the 1997 edition, and spent 14 uneventful years at Freehold, one at Pocono and the last three at Tioga, carries a shorter purse than the Messenger, but has escaped the twice-arounds. Lyonssomewhere beat He’s Watching and JK Endofanera in 2014; Captain T beat Vegas Vacation in 2013; and Dynamic Youth beat Pet Rock and A Rocknroll Dance in 2012. Switching to the bigger track has drastically improved the talent. This year the race will move to the Meadowlands where it will enhance the Hambletonian Day program. The Cane is a solid Grade 2, which has drawn better quality fields than the Messenger of late, and is striving to regain its Grade 1 status.
The Yonkers Trot would also have more of a problem drumming up Grade 1 votes in 2015. Nuncio crushed a soft field in this year’s $580,000 edition. Six, or 17%, of the Hambletonian winners have also won the Yonkers Trot in the 35 years since Tom White conducted this review. Just as the better pacers tend to avoid the Messenger, the better trotters sit out the Yonkers Trot.
The Adios, which was classified as a Grade 1 by 31 of the 33 respondents, is another race that has fallen somewhat out of favor. Only 14% of the Meadowlands Pace winners in the last 35 years also won the Adios; the last to do so was Davids Pass nineteen years ago. Only 13 % of the NA Cup winners have also won the Adios since the Cup was rebranded in 1984, and again, Davids Pass was the last to do it. This year the Adios will be held on Saturday, August 1. One assumes the Hambletonian—and the Cane—will be the following Saturday. McWicked, Sunfire Blue Chip, Bolt The Duer, Alsace Hanover, Delmarvalous and Vintage Master won the last six editions of the Adios. Needless to say, reputation notwithstanding, the race wouldn’t garner all those Grade 1 votes today.
Thirty-one of the 33 respondents designated the Oaks as a Grade 1, and I assume the result would be equally one-sided today. The Fox Stake, on the other hand, has done a free fall from grace. Around since 1927, it was the richest race for freshman pacing colts at one time. Adios, Good Time, Bret Hanover, Romeo Hanover, Laverne Hanover and Albatross all won the Fox. Unfortunately racing at the Indianapolis Fairgrounds isn’t what it was, and in recent years the likes of Harfo Hanover and Blooming Genius won the race. Rating it a three would be too generous.
Some of the stakes which garnered two-thirds of the votes in White’s survey have been eliminated. The Colonial, Holmes, Kentucky Pacing Derby, Prix d’Ete (3YO), Sweetheart and World Trotting Derby are all gone. The venerable Dexter and Lady Suffolk, which are raced at Freehold, are now Grade 3 stakes. The Peter Haughton Memorial Pace, which was raced at Roosevelt, is no more. The Adioo Volo is now a Grade 3; the Tattersalls Pace, which is now raced in divisions with no heats, is a Grade 2. Can’t have two winners and be a one. The Peter Haughton freshman trot is still around and noteworthy. The Tarport Hap has been eliminated, along with the Niatross, and previously mentioned Wilson. Sweetheart and Holmes as Jeff Gural gradually purges the calendar of colt and filly stakes so he can concentrate on series for the four and up group.
The Breeders Crown, the most important addition to the stakes landscape in the last thirty-five years, had yet to be introduced when Tom White solicited these opinions in 1981. All of them would rate a Grade 1 designation today.
A race needed 22 votes for Grade 1 status to qualify under White’s system. Eighteen, or 26%, made the cut. Less than half that number would warrant a Grade 1 designation today. With so many buying strictly for sire stakes racing, it apparently doesn’t matter.