Should the Hollywood Derby's grade matter?

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

December 5th, 2014

In this space Thursday, Ed DeRosa took issue with the criticism that California Chrome's victory in last week's Hollywood Derby should be downgraded based on the quality of his opposition:

To me, race success is binary: either you win or you lose, and it's not the obligation of the connections of a well-regarded horse (such as California Chrome) to ensure that the best horses show up in a race they're targeting.

He's right about this. By the same token, those that hold an Eclipse Award ballot, or even racing fans in general, are under less obligation to give full-fledged credit (whatever that might entail) for what a horse accomplishes because a body like the American Graded Stakes Committee decreed months in advance that a particular race merits a certain designation (and thus possesses unquestionable stature) based solely on the quality of its past renewals.

The same situation applies in everyday handicapping. Rightly or wrongly, bettors discriminate between horses based on the quality of the opposition they've faced (e.g. was that maiden, claiming race or allowance strong or weak?). If it's proper to evaluate horses this way for the purposes of betting (or even for buying bloodstock), is it not proper to expect an Eclipse Award voter to forge an independent judgment on the quality of an individual race irrespective of what a committee, lacking omniscience, designated it to be ahead of time?

The Grade 1 stakes race is the pinnacle of North American Thoroughbred racing, and while not all are created equal and there are too many of them, the system mostly works in that a Grade 1 race is more prestigious than a Grade 2 -- especially at the divisional level (e.g. the Wood Memorial is a more important race than the Gotham).

But in this case we're talking about the Hollywood Derby, a grass race run in late November and one which has not yielded a three-year-old champion since Affirmed won it on dirt in April 1978. Can we truly compare it to a Grade 1 race run on dirt earlier in the year, or even to a race like the Pennsylvania Derby, a Grade 2 event which carries a $1 million purse and featured two of the top three leading candidates for the award this year? It is a proverbial apples and oranges comparison.

When it comes to the Grade 1 level, if you win the race you get the spoils and that's the case with California Chrome's Hollywood Derby as much as it has been throughout history even with such superstars as Point Given's Haskell, Mineshaft's Suburban, Rachel Alexandra's Mother Goose, or Zenyatta's Clement Hirsch.

The difference is that no one at the time argued, or could argue in retrospect, that those particular wins by Point Given, Mineshaft, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta were the title-clinching performances. At any rate, should the "spoils" of victory in any one race or grouping of races within your own division (perhaps with the rare exception of a Triple Crown sweep -- unknown in either my or Ed's conscious lifetime) automatically include "extra credit" for a divisional championship based solely on its grade or perceived stature?

This mindset has, in my opinion, resulted in several questionable results in past Eclipse Award balloting. Two egregious examples are Funny Cide's three-year-old championship in 2003 and Skip Away's older male title in 1997.

I mean, seriously, look at this field Point Given faced in the Haskell en route to his Horse of the Year campaign (over two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow) and tell me with a straight face how it's any different than California Chrome's Hollywood Derby. It's not. Both are Grade 1 races that likely would have attracted deeper, more talented fields if not for the presence of a dual classic winner.

The field Point Given defeated in the Haskell doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny, as Ed implies. There was only one other Grade 1 winner and a Grade 2 winner among his five rivals. However, we have to remember that in early August 2001 Point Given had virtually no competition remaining for the three-year-old championship. Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos had been put away for the year due to injury after losing to Point Given by a combined 20 1/2 lengths in the Preakness and Belmont. Congaree, also from the Bob Baffert stable, ran the day before and lost in the Jim Dandy, and the positioning of those two races on the same weekend has always diluted the depth of the other.

In contrast, as this season went on, California Chrome gradually lost his firm grip on title claims as Bayern, Shared Belief and Tonalist entered the championship picture with victories over older horses, a transcending of the division which California Chrome has not yet done even after his victory last weekend.

The ongoing debate this week regarding California Chrome's qualifications for the three-year-old championship is in some ways a proxy discussion about how much the work the American Graded Stakes Committee does should influence the way we think about the relative merits of individual horses and races. Makes you wonder how the sport survived and champions were crowned before its benevolent formation.