The list of U.S. Graded Stakes for 2009 has been released and, as Ray Paulick notes, it’s top-heavy with G1s and G2s, with six races promoted to G1 status and only one downgraded: the venerable yet notably weakened Suburban Handicap, only two years removed from Invasor’s easy victory (and one year into Shadwell Farm's sponsorship, thus the downgrade must really piss them off).
The decline of this race, more than any other in recent years, really bothers me. As a pre-teen fanatic of horse racing history, I revered the Suburban which, along with the Metropolitan and Brooklyn, once formed a handicap Triple Crown, won by such greats as Tom Fool and Kelso. The first to achieve the feat was the legendary Whisk Broom II who did it at 6-year-old, carrying 139 pounds. Assault, Nashua, Bold Ruler, Sword Dancer, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, Forego, and Foolish Pleasure all won the mighty Suburban. I particularly love the latter’s 1976 victory over Lord Rebeau and Forego—what a physical monster Forego was, and scrappy little Foolish Pleasure held on for the victory, denying Forego the Triple Crown!
Teresa over at Brooklyn Backstretch wrote her usual exquisite piece on this handicap Triple Crown back in June, and I share her angst at the lack of attention given to attempting it these days. While the sport needs to change, grow and move forward in so many ways, parts of its history need not be forgotten, and races like the Suburban definite fall into that category. Unfortunately, its decline appears to be indicative of not only the plethora of early retirements due to injury or stud duty for 3-year-olds in recent years, but also the continuing waning of "important" route races over 9f.
While 3-year-olds continue to have the Kentucky Derby (10f), Preakness (9.5f), Belmont (12f), and Travers (10f), the remaining G1 dirt routes include four 10f races—Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Santa Anita Handicap and the BC Classic—run on artificial surfaces; only the Pimlico Special (9.5f) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (10f) remain as G1s on dirt, and considering the tenuous financial situation of Maryland racing, who knows if Pimlico will retain the Special. How very sad.
And it begs the question, why is winning the 3-year-old Triple Crown important anymore?
I am serious.
Proving you can win at 12f doesn't mean squat when you and your offspring will only have one opportunity to run 12f on dirt. “Stamina” is a dirty word. All bow down to the omnipotent horse racing god “Speed.”
Sprinters have 11 total G1 races, at 6f (Ancient Title, Bing Crosby, Frank De Francis Memorial Dash, BC Sprint, and Vosburgh) and 7f (Carter, Forego, King’s Bishop, Malibu, Pat O’Brien, and Triple Bend), and only two of those (King’s Bishop and Malibu) are restricted to 3-year-olds.
Yes, I know I am oversimplifying, but I miss seeing dirt horses tested over significant distances. Maybe that's why I prefer turf racing these days, as it appears to be the last bastion of stamina, thus employing more complex race riding tactics—a thinking jock’s game, an intelligent horse’s challenge, and a race that’s relatively, gloriously unpredictable.
Finally, kudos to Presque Isle for gaining G3 status for the Masters Stakes after only two years. I was there for the inaugural running when Miss Macy Sue beat Wild Gams and Miraculous Miss—the latter finished second behind Maryfield at sloppy Monmouth in the first BC Filly & Mare Sprint, while Miss Macy Sue got third. In this year’s Masters, Wild Gams turned the tables, beating Miss Macy Sue and Dream Rush.