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Did the Bluegrass and Wood Memorial Get the Shaft?

Keeneland - Photo Credit: Emily Shields
Emily Shields

There is no debate from a historical outlook the Wood Memorial and Bluegrass Stakes are Grade 1 races. The list of champions that prepped in these two races are as long as the eye can see, and these two races historically rank right up there (if not better) with the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, and certainly the Arkansas Derby. However late last week the Bluegrass Stakes and Wood Memorial were downgraded to Grade 2 races, while the other three I mentioned stayed at Grade 1 status. Racing fans for the most part were enraged by this decision, and looked at it as a slap in the face to Keeneland and Aqueduct.

However, was this downgrade warranted based on current results of the races? You don’t have to follow too closely to notice these two races have been in a slump, but just how bad is it? Also, what time frame is relevant before we can call this slump a pattern instead of a lull or slow period for the prep races? I’ve decided in today’s “what have you done for me lately world” that looking back five years is probably sufficient to how the current mindset works with the people making these decisions. Lets take a look back at the last five running’s of the Bluegrass and Wood Memorial, and then decide if the downgrading was necessary.

Bluegrass Stakes

2016: A weak running of the race as winner Brody’s Cause and second place finisher My Man Sam did not do much the rest of the year. Third place finisher Cherry Wine was second in the Preakness Stakes, but did very little after that race. Fourth place finisher Laoban broke his maiden in winning the Grade 2 Jim Dandy giving the Bluegrass graduates their biggest win of the year. The remainder of the field leaves a lot to be desired.

2015: This wasn’t good at all. Carpe Diem came into the race undefeated and won, but did nothing after the race. Danzig Moon struggled as well after the race, but his career was cut short by a tragic breakdown at Woodbine. Ocho Ocho Ocho, Frammento, Classy Class, Gorgeous Bird, Unrivaled, and Pepper Roani rounded out the field and none went on to do much.

2014: Another sad year for the Bluegrass Stakes as it’s winner Dance With Fate would later pass away. This was a large field, but it was quantity over quality as hardly any of the runners in the race went on to have big careers. The twelfth place finisher was Bobby’s Kitten, who did later go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita in surprise fashion. Without that win it would be really bad for the running of this race.

2013: The story is a little better this time for the Bluegrass! Winner Java’s War went on to do very little, but second place finisher Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy Stakes to round out his three year old season. He also came back to win the Met Mile at Belmont Park the next year. Third place finisher Charming Kitten won SIX times after the race, including a Grade 3 stakes. Rydilluc won the Penn Mile, Balance the Books won a listed stakes, My Name Is Michael is a four time winner, Dynamic Sky won a Grade 3 race, Uncaptured won the Prince of Wales, and Undrafted became a multiple graded stakes winner. Wow…that was a productive field!

2012: Race winner Dullahan went on to win the Grade 1 Pacific Classic so that is a big time feather in the cap of this running of the race. The race also featured Hansen who was a Grade 1 winner prior, and went on to win the Grade 3 Iowa Derby after the Bluegrass. The rest of the field wasn’t quite as strong, but it’s worth mentioning that Politicallycorrect did win the Oklahoma Derby and Damascus Stakes while finishing twelfth in the Bluegrass.

Wood Memorial

2016: Not a good year to start with as last year may have been the worst running ever. Outwork won the race and did nothing afterward, and a maiden finished second in Trojan Nation. Simply put these horses made no impact on the Triple Crown series, and only one horse (Dalmore) won a grade stakes (Grade 3 Affirmed Stakes) the rest of the year.

2015: You can’t fault the winner of this running as Frosted used this race so springboard himself to a great career. Even the horses behind Frosted weren’t too bad. El Kabeir came back to win a stakes at Laurel, Tencendur ran second in the Ohio Derby, Tiz Shea D won the Grade 2 Indiana Derby, Toasting won three allowance races, and Lieutenant Colonel won two allowance races. Overall this felt like a Grade 1 caliber prep race.

2014: Another strong winner of the race as Wicked Strong made a decent impact on the Triple Crown trail while also becoming a pretty nice horse over the summer at Saratoga. Runner up Samraat probably won’t go down as a hall of famer, but he is at least a horse that ran respectable races. The rest of them didn’t fair well after the Wood except for an also ran named Effinex who finished 8th that day. His development helps strengthen the race as we look back on it now.

2013: Yet another fairly solid winner in Verrazano who did go on to win the Haskell Stakes later in the year. Runner up Normandy Invasion never lived up to his billing though after a promising fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Third place finisher Vyjack is a multiple grade 2 winner since the Wood, but it took him awhile to do so. The others in the race…well they didn’t do a lot to help the resume of the Wood Memorial.

2012: Gemologist won this race, but obviously had his issues after as he ran just two more times and was never close. However, second place finisher Alpha won three big races after the Wood memorial including Grade 1 wins in the Travers Stakes and Woodward Stakes. Third Place finisher Teeth of the Dog was a consistent runner and Grade 2 winner, and The Lumber Guy went on to win a Grade 1 race. Finally, My Adonis and Street Life won ungraded stakes later in the year.

In conclusion when taking a look at the Wood Memorial over the last five years I would have to say it deserves to stay on as a Grade 1. Admittedly last year was horrific, but the four years previous to that where not all that bad. Frosted, Wicked Strong, Samraat, Effinex, Verrazano, Vyjack, and Alpha were all graduates of the race that represented it in a great way. I believe the downgrading was unjust and a knee jerk reaction to what the committee saw in last years race. If that trend was to continue then at that time I would have downgraded to a Grade 2. This move was premature.

As for the Bluegrass Stakes, it’s a little more debatable. There is no way around it…the last three running’s of the race have not been up to par. However, the 2012 and 2013 races were strong enough to keep it a Grade 1 at least for another year in my opinion. Perhaps the downgrade made more sense for the Bluegrass Stakes, but waiting another year wouldn’t have hurt.

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