Graded Stakes Point System vs. Eclipse Voters

January 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: award, Breeders' Cup 

Last year at this time I proposed a Graded Stakes Point System to measure and rank racing accomplishments throughout the year and to use those rankings to determine the division champions at the end of the year. Now that the finalists for the Eclipse Awards have been announced, let’s see how my system compares to the selections of the intelligentsia at the DRF, NTRA, and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association.

The Eclipse Award finalists are listed alphabetically. The Graded Stakes Point System top three are listed in order of preference, top pick first.

Older Male

Graded Stakes Point System:  Acclamation, Game On Dude, Cape Blanco

Eclipse Award Voters:  Acclamation, Game On Dude, Tizway

Comment:  We agree on two of these, the difference being Tizway over Cape Blanco. I suspect some voters won’t consider a pure turf horses for this award, since there is a specific Turf Male award, but that doesn’t explain Acclamation who ran five of his seven races on grass this year. Even if that was the case, I would have gone with Flat Out over Tizway, who only raced four times.

Older Female

GSPS:  Havre de Grace, Never Retreat, Dubawi Heights

EAV:  Awesome Maria, Blind Luck, Havre De Grace

Comment:  We only agree on Havre De Grace here. Awesome Maria did win all four of her starts this year, all graded stakes, but the first two were Grade 3’s and the last two, a Grade 1 and a Grade 2, were both five horse fields. That doesn’t generate many points in my system. After Havre De Grace, in my system, are two turf specialists (Never Retreat and Dubawi Heights) and a sprinter (Hilda’s Passion) who may not have been considered here due to being selected for awards in other divisions.  The next two in my rankings are Switch, who only won one graded stakes this year, and Blind Luck, who only competed in one Grade 1 before easing in the Grade 1 Lady’s Secret. I think the turfers had better years.

 3YO Male

GSPS:  Caleb’s Posse, Shackleford, Stay Thirsty

EAV:  Animal Kingdom, Caleb’s Posse, Shackleford

Comment:  We agree on two of the three, with the difference being the Eclipse voters choosing Kentucky Derby winner (and Preakness runner-up) Animal Kingdom, who didn’t race again after finishing sixth in the Belmont Stakes, over Stay Thirsty who raced all year, winning the Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes. I think Caleb’s Posse’s four graded stakes wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, should prevail in a sophomore class that failed to otherwise distinguish itself in 2011.

3YO Female

GSPS:  Royal Delta, Zazu, It’s Tricky

EAV:  It’s Tricky, Plum Pretty, Royal Delta

Comment:  Again we agree on two of three, but I really think the Eclipse voters got this one wrong by picking Plum Pretty over Zazu.  Plum Pretty raced nine times in 2011, winning two graded stakes, but never faced older runners until her fifth place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. (Granted, those were two huge wins – the $1,000,000 Kentucky Oaks (G1) and the $750,000 Cotillion Stakes (G2).)  However, Zazu beat Plum Pretty twice in 2011, only losing to her in the Kentucky Oaks, and beat older runners winning the Grade 1 Lady’s Secret.

2YO Male

GSPS:  Union Rags, Creative Cause, Hansen

EAV:  Creative Cause, Hansen, Union Rags

Comment:  We agree on all three.

2YO Female

GSPS:  My Miss Aurelia, Stephanie’s Kitten, Weemissfrankie

EAV:  Grace Hall, My Miss Aurelia, Stephanie’s Kitten

Comment:  Agreement again on two of three selections, with the difference being voters presumably selecting Spinaway Stakes (G1) winner Grace Hall over two-time Grade 1 winner Weemissfrankie on the strength of Grace Hall finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fillies, six lengths ahead of Weemissfrankie.

 Turf Male

GSPS:  Cape Blanco, Get Stormy, Acclamation

EAV:  Acclamation, Cape Blanco, St Nicholas Abbey

Comment:  With three important Grade 1 wins on the year, Cape Blanco should win this award easily, so I guess it doesn’t really matter who the other two finalists are. Philosophically, however, I do have a problem with voting for a horse who only raced once in this country, even if that one race was a win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.  I’m curious if some voters automatically vote for the winners of Breeders’ Cup races, regardless of what went on during the rest of the year. I’d rather see horses that race in the U. S. all year be rewarded.

Turf Female

GSPS:  Never Retreat, Dubawi Heights, Stacelita

EAV:  Dubawi Heights, Perfect Shirl, Stacelita

Comment:  Another agreement on two of the three picks and another seemingly lazy selection by the Eclipse Award voters (see also: St Nicholas Abbey above).  Perfect Shirl won only one race in 2011, but that one win happened to be in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. She had not even run in another Grade 1 race this year. Why bother racing all year if the Breeders’ Cup races are the only ones that matter? (That’s a rhetorical question. Please don’t take it as a suggestion.)

Male Sprinter

GSPS:  Amazombie, Smiling Tiger, The Factor

EAV:  Amazombie, Caleb’s Posse, Regally Ready

Comment:  While we agree on Amazombie, who probably wins this award easily, I’m not sure how Eclipse voters could justify ignoring both Smiling Tiger and The Factor in favor of the turf sprinter Regally Ready. As for Caleb’s Posse, the only way to include him here is by treating the one turn Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile as a sprint.  Don’t get me wrong, Caleb’s Posse had a great year, and is my pick for the Three-year-old Male award, but only two of his graded stakes wins were true sprints and neither of those were against older horses. Both Smiling Tiger and The Factor won more graded sprints and also beat older horses at least once. 

Female Sprinter

GSPS:  Hilda’s Passion, Musical Romance, Sassy Image

EAV:  Hilda’s Passion, Musical Romance, Sassy Image

Comment:  We agree on all three.

Jockey

GSPS:  John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Ramon Dominguez

EAV:  Javier Castellano, Ramon Dominguez, John Velazquez

Comment:  The only difference here is Castellano over Rosario.  Both had nearly the same year ($15.6 million in purses and 270+ wins), but Rosario did it with 190 fewer mounts.

Trainer

GSPS:  Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Graham Motion

EAV:  Bob Baffert, Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher

Comment:  The only difference here is Bill Mott over Graham Motion and I really don’t have a big problem either way.  Mott won a couple million more in purses, but Motion won a few more races with fewer starters.

Final Thoughts

The Graded Stakes Point System and the Eclipse Award voters agree on 24 of the 36 selections above. Of the 12 differences, my only real disagreement is with the voters issuing express passes to the Eclipse Awards for anyone winning a Breeders’ Cup race.  (Unless your name is Drosselmeyer. Or Court Vision.)

Overall, I’d say the Graded Stakes Point System did at least as good a job of picking the top three in each division as the Eclipse Award voters did.  (OK, better.  But I am biased.) I can also see how letting a system determine the division champions would destroy any interest and intrigue there may be in the actual Eclipse Award ceremony. Maybe a system could pick the top three for the ballot and then let the voters decide the Eclipse Award winners.

A Graded Stakes Points System

January 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: award, Breeders' Cup, Horse Racing 

The Super Bowl.  The World Series.  The Breeders’ Cup.

Which one doesn’t fit with the others?  The first two crown their sport’s champion.  The third just says it does.

Despite what the Breeders’ Cup markets itself as, horse racing is ill-suited to a true end-of-season championship like the Super Bowl or World Series.  The teams that win those events are champions because they’ve bested their competition through a long regular season and multiple playoff rounds before defeating an equally qualified competitor in the final game.  Horses just aren’t build for that.

Horse racing is more like professional golf or NASCAR, where individuals compete in events throughout the year and champions are determined, to a large degree, by the competitors’ cumulative performance over the year.  On the PGA Tour, for instance, players earn points based on where they finish in each week’s tournament.  The players with the most points at the end of the year advance to a playoff round that determines the champion for that year.

Horse racing could implement a similar model, where horses would earn points based on how well they perform in graded stakes races throughout the year.  This would also address another area where horse racing is lacking.  In most other sports, fans can check the standings every day to see who is in first place or how their favorite players are doing.  A definitive procedure for determining not only the champions at the end of the year, but who is leading during the year, could help hold fan interest between the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup.  By establishing a direct link between graded stakes results and earning championships, every graded stakes race becomes not only more important, but more interesting.  A win isn’t just a win.  It’s also a jump up the championship leader board.

Creating a graded stakes points system is a matter of establishing the relative value of each graded stakes race.  Races open to all horses should be worth more than those restricted to fillies and mares.  Races for older horses should be worth more than those limited to two-year-olds or three-year-olds.  Route races should be worth more than sprints.

The American Graded Stakes Committee (AGSC) reviews all eligible races in the United States each year and designates each one a Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, or Ungraded.  That’s fine for comparing races within a racing division – it’s useful to know that a Grade 1 for two-year-olds is more important than a Grade 3 for two-year-olds, but it doesn’t tell us how it compares to a Grade 1 for older horses.  One of the tools the AGSC uses to grade races are ratings produced by the North American Rating Committee (NARC), which assigns hypothetical weights, or ratings, to every runner in a black-type stakes race each week.  These horse ratings are used to calculate a race rating, called the NARC RATE, and those NARC RATES are averaged over a five year period to create a measure of the strength of each graded stakes race in the country.

Using these five-year average NARC RATES as a guide, the table below attempts to express the relative value of graded stakes in all racing divisions to each other, with open Grade 1 route races for older horses being arbitrarily assigned 100 points.

Graded Stakes Race Values

Race Type G1 G2 G3
3up Open Dirt Route 100 65 45
3up Open Turf Route 100 65 50
3up Open Sprint 80 55 40
       
3up F&M Dirt Route 75 50 25
3up F&M Turf Route 80 60 45
3up F&M Sprint 70 50 30
       
3yo Open Dirt Route 90 55 35
3yo Open Turf Route 70 50 30
3yo Open Sprint 70 30 25
       
3yo Filly Dirt Route 70 45 25
3yo Filly Turf Route 65 50 35
3yo Filly Sprint 50 30 15
       
2yo Open Dirt Route 70 40 30
2yo Open Turf Route 70 40 25
2yo Open Sprint 50 30 20
       
2yo Filly Dirt Route 55 20 15
2yo Filly Turf Route 0 50 15
2yo Filly Sprint 45 30 15

Establishing the relative value of graded stakes races across the different racing divisions is a good first step, but it doesn’t mean those values truly represent the quality of this year’s running of a given race.  It will be necessary to adjust those points to better reflect the actual quality of the field in each individual race.  Ideally, I would like to rate the quality of the field based on the previous graded stakes experience of the runners.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources to do that just yet, so I’m going to use secondary factors to make judgements about the race quality – purse money and field size.

One thing that has always been true is that big money will attract big horses.  The connections of Blind Luck and Havre de Grace didn’t send their fillies to the Cotillion Stakes last fall because they had their hearts set on capturing a Grade 2 in Pennsylvania.  They went because the purse was $750,000, 50% more than the highest Grade 1 purses available in races restricted to three-year-old fillies.  The Cotillion is still a Grade 2, but the purse makes it worth more than the average Grade 2 route for three-year-old fillies.  Using purse money to adjust graded stakes points is also a good way to reflect the importance of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races and several other ‘super’ Grade 1’s.

Using field size to adjust graded stakes points is a little less definitive.  While a small field can be highly competitive and a large field can be very weak, the fact remains that having fewer horses to beat makes winning a easier proposition.

Race Value Adjustments

Factor Adj
< 5 runners -20%
5 runners -10%
6 runners -5%
10 runners +5%
11 runners +5%
12+ runners +10%
Purse $500-749 +10%
Purse $750-$999 +20%
Purse $1000-1999 +30%
Purse $2000+ +50%

Now that we have an adjusted race value, we’ll distribute the adjusted race points to the win, place and show finishers using the following ratio:

Point Distribution

Win Place Show
60% 25% 15%

So what is the net result of these calculations?  Are they correct?  Well, no, probably not.  They’re arbitrary on nearly every level.  That said, I think they’re a pretty good start.  A look at the total graded stakes points for 2010 gives us a pretty reasonable Horse of the Year result.

2010 Horse of the Year

Horse Points
Blame 290
Quality Road 260
Zenyatta 256
Blind Luck 243
Lookin At Lucky 232

Check out the full 2010 Graded Stakes Leaderboard for all of the division leaders.

If you have any ideas that would improve these calculations or a different idea for creating a graded stakes points system, I’d would love to hear from you.  In the meantime, I’ll keep working with what I have in the hope of refining the method until it is as accurate and useful as possible.

My Pick for 2010 Horse of the Year

January 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: award, Breeders' Cup, Horse Racing 

Along with the other, less incendiary, Eclipse Awards, the 2010 Horse of the Year will be announced at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau on January 17th and when the result is read, regardless of who wins, the blogosphere and twitterverse will explode with a near-equal balance of self-satisfaction and righteous indignation.

Those with complaints will, to a certain degree, be justified in their ire.  The problem with the Eclipse Awards is that there are no criteria for who should win and no guidance is given to the voters.  Everyone, voters and non-voters alike, is left to decide for themselves what Horse of the Year means.  And that, of course, can only lead to disagreement.

So how will voters decide who is the Horse of the Year?  Here are some of the philosophies I’ve seen promoted:

  • The Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. 
  • The “best” horse, i.e., the horse that would beat the others in a race.
  • The “most impressive” horse.
  • The horse that has had the best season or accomplished the most.
  • The horse that has done the most for horse racing.
  • The most popular horse or the horse that has captured the public imagination.

Since there are no official award criteria, I can’t say any of these ideas are wrong, although some seem far less right than others.

To me, and perhaps only me, the Horse of the Year award should go the horse that has accomplished the most during the year, while racing primarily in the United States.  And by “accomplished the most”, I mean raced competitively, all year, in the biggest races. 

Let’s look at some Horse of the Year candidates.

Zenyatta

How can you not love Zenyatta?  Even her biggest detractors will readily admit she’s a remarkable racehorse.  I’ve followed horse racing for over 40 years and have never seen a horse with so much personality or such ability to engage fans.  Her come-from-the-clouds racing style evokes memories of Native Dancer, Silky Sullivan, and Needles – all of whom captivated racing fans by trailing early in races before unleashing a furious charge in the stretch to win at the last possible moment.  It may not be the easiest way to win a horse race, but it is certainly the most exciting.

But for this discussion, choosing the Horse of the Year, I don’t care if she dances.  I don’t care if she was on 60 Minutes, or Oprah, or anything else off the track.  I only care about what she did on the racetrack, and this year, just like last year, her owners and trainer pursued a safe, uninspiring race schedule that was designed to protect her undefeated record, leading to what they hoped would be another victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this time resulting in the Horse of the Year award they covet.  Call it the All-Eggs-In-One-Basket strategy.  Last year they won the battle but lost the war when their horse won the Breeders’ Cup Classic but lost the Horse of the Year award anyway due to the much more aggressive campaign waged by Rachel Alexandra.  This year they pursued the same path, but didn’t even win the battle, as their horse was not able to get past Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

“But she won five Grade 1 races this year!”  That may be true, but are all Grade 1’s really the same?  Does winning a Grade 1 for two-year-old fillies carry the same weight and prestige as winning the Whitney Handicap?  Of course not.  Well, the Grade 1’s for older females that Zenyatta won this year don’t measure up to the open Grade 1’s that Blame ran in this year either.  It’s not even close.  In Zenyatta’s five wins she never faced more than one graded stakes winner and none had achieved more than a Grade 2.  (Lady’s Secret runner-up Switch did pick up a Grade 1 in a sprint for three-year-old fillies last week.)

Zenyatta had plenty of opportunities this year to face tougher competition outside her division.  In fact, Zenyatta could have run in any of the races that Blame ran in.  (Blame, on the other hand, was not eligible to run in any of Zenyatta’s races.)  Zenyatta could even have stayed home and faced tougher horses by running against males in the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Pacific Classic or the Goodwood Stakes.  Her connections chose not to.  (Another mare, the five-year-old St Trinians, did run in the Big ‘Cap, finishing sixth against the boys.  She would lose to Zenyatta by only half a length three months later in the Vanity.)  Five wins against lightly-accomplished females and a loss in her only race against top runners is not a Horse of the Year worthy campaign.

Blame

So Blame is Horse of the Year, right?  Not so fast. 

Five races.  Four wins (one in a Grade 3).  That’s all we get for a Horse of the Year campaign from a horse that was healthy all year?  I’ve got to say, it pisses me off a little bit.  Not unlike the Zenyatta camp, here we have another barn trying to find the absolute  minimum necessary to pick up a Horse of the Year trophy.  The difference being that at least Blame ran against the toughest competition available during the year before capping off his season with a win in the biggest race of the year.

Goldikova

Great horse.  Amazing career.  But one race in the U.S. isn’t enough to be our Horse of the Year.

Europe has the Cartier Racing Awards.  Canada has the Sovereign Awards.  The Eclipse Awards should be exclusively for U.S. based horses.  Sorry Goldi.

Blind Luck

Blind Luck, a three-year-old filly, raced nine times in 2010 at tracks all across the country, including Santa Anita, Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park, Delaware Park, Saratoga Race Course and Philadelphia Park.  Although she competed in five grade 1’s (winning three) and four grade 2’s (winning two), she didn’t face older horses until the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic and never faced males.  If her record included another win or two, I would be very tempted to give her the award just to make the point to the other camps that you can’t sneak through the year cherry-picking a few wins and expect to be handed Horse of the Year.

Proviso

Proviso raced six times in 2010, all in Grade 1’s, and faced males twice (winning the Kilroe Mile).  Other than their Breeders’ Cup races, I think a case can be made that Proviso’s 2010 campaign was more impressive than Zenyatta’s.  Proviso’s Kilroe Mile win was over male Grade 1 winners Fluke (2009 Citation) and Awesome Gem (2010 Hollywood Gold Cup), and multiple graded stakes winner Battle of Hastings.  In the Diana, she beat 2008 Female Turf Champion Forever Together and eventual Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Shared Account.  In the First Lady she beat mulitple graded stakes winners Gotta Have Her, Dynaslew and Wasted Tears.  I believe a win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile could have earned her the Horse of the Year, but that was not to be.  It’s hard to beat her up too much for running seventh against a world-class field.  She may have just been in over her head.

And my pick for 2010 Horse of the Year is…

I’m not completely happy about it, but my pick for 2010 Horse of the Year is Blame – for the quality of his wins, despite their limited quantity.

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