One of the key factors in horseplaying from a class standpoint — the grading of stakes races – underwent its yearly review when the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association unveiled its annual listing of US Graded and Listed Stakes races.

Blue Grass-AGSC review
Essential Quality (4) nipped Highly Motivated in last year’s Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes. That race was one of three upgraded to Grade 1 status for 2022. (Image: Keeneland/Coady Photography)

The new grades encompass races from February 2022 through January 2023. They are the result of a two-day grading session the committee conducted on Jan. 26-27.

This year, the committee reviewed 891 US stakes races with purses of at least $75,000. They assigned graded status (Grades 1, 2, or 3) to 449 — a four-race increase from 2021. Another 204 received Listed status, the class level directly underneath Grade 3.

Eight graded races were upgraded, most notably the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, which moved back to the class pinnacle for the first time since 2016. The Blue Grass was one of three races earning promotion to Grade 1 status, joining the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint and the New York Stakes at Belmont Park.

“We are thrilled that the Toyota Blue Grass has been restored to Grade 1 status,” Keeneland Vice President of Racing Gatewood Bell said in a release. “This is a goal we’ve worked toward for several years.”

Kentucky Derby preps get a new elite member

The promotion now puts four Grade 1 Kentucky Derby preps on the map. The Blue Grass joins the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, and Florida Derby as Grade 1 stops on the Derby trail.

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint earns its first promotion since its 2018 debut.

Not unlike promotion and relegation in European football, stakes races undergo annual reviews based on field sizes, field strength, and depth of field. Other factors playing into the process include purse size, race longevity, and track conditions.

This creates fluidity among the approximately 15% of Thoroughbred races that comprise stakes events. Those races sit atop the class pyramid and draw the overwhelming share of attention and money.

Relegation at the lower levels hits smaller tracks hard

Below graded stakes events sit Listed races. They aren’t immune from promotion/relegation either. Thirteen races were upgraded from Listed to Grade 3 this year. At the same time, nine races were relegated from Listed to non-Listed Black Type, the lowest rung on the stakes ladder. Most of those were races at smaller tracks, such as Turfway Park, Indiana Grand, Remington Park, and Presque Isle Downs.

Back up the class food chain, two races were downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2: the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park and the Flower Bowl Stakes at Saratoga. With the closing of Arlington Park, the Secretariat will ostensibly run elsewhere.

Those two join five races earning promotions to Grade 2. Those are the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs, the Wonder Again and Bed o’ Roses at Belmont Park, the Fanduel Turf Sprint at Kentucky Downs, and the Shuvee at Saratoga.

Grade 3 saw plenty of upward, downward movement

Four races were relegated from Grade 2 to Grade 3. Those are the Falls City at Churchill Downs, the Best Pal at Del Mar, and the Adirondack and Bernard Baruch at Saratoga.

The most prominent of the 13 races earning Grade 3 status for the upcoming year are the Jockey Club Derby and Jockey Club Oaks at Belmont Park, the Essex and Oaklawn Mile at Oaklawn Park, the Del Mar Juvenile Turf at Del Mar, and the Surfer Girl and Zuma Beach at Santa Anita. The Oaklawn Mile was promoted to Listed status just last year.

Prominent among the nine downgraded from Grade 3 to Listed status are the Los Alamitos Derby, the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs, the Gulfstream Park Sprint, and the Laz Barrera at Santa Anita.

There are 101 Grade 1 races among 449 graded stakes

An overwhelming 20 races were upgraded to Listed status, up from 12 earning promotion last year. Prominent among those were the Blame and Kelly’s Landing, two of the seven newly minted Listed races at Churchill Downs. Others of note include the Winter Memories at Aqueduct, the Perryville at Keeneland, the Prince George’s County at Pimlico, and the Speakeasy at Santa Anita.

Of the 449 graded stakes for 2022-23, 101 (22.5%) are Grade 1s. Another 135 (30.1%) are Grade 2s. The remaining 213 (47.4%) are Grade 3s. That means a tick over half the stakes events: 50.4%, are graded stakes.

Listed stakes comprise another 192 (21.5%) and non-Listed Black Type make up more than a quarter of the stakes events at 238 (26.7%). The remaining 1.3% — 12 races — are Listed-Restricted Status races, a sliver between Black Type and full Listed.