Recognizing the impact of the Saratoga Derby Invitational in just two runnings so far, the American Graded Stakes Committee recently boosted the feature to Grade 1 status. Evidence in support of that upgrade is likely to keep piling up.
Saratoga Derby impact
Although the winner of the inaugural Saratoga Derby in 2019, A Thread of Blue, did not progress, runner-up Digital Age went on to take this year’s Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs and competed in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). Saratoga Derby third-placer Cape of Good Hope, one of two shippers for Aidan O’Brien, captured the Caulfield (G1) in his very next start for his new Australian yard.
The fourth across the wire last year at the Spa, Social Paranoia, later landed a trio of stakes including two Grade 3s, and his comeback score Dec. 16 suggests he can add to his resume. Saratoga Derby fifth Rockemperor collected several high-profile placings this season, just missing in the Manhattan (G1) and taking third to fellow alum (and Chad Brown stablemate) Digital Age in the Old Forester.
The 2020 Saratoga Derby on Aug. 15 was arguably even better, despite the purse being halved to $500,000. It’s become a key race already, with the principals bringing loads of upside into 2021. Brown’s lightly raced Domestic Spending put it all together to beat a still-learning Gufo, who came right back to win the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) over Saratoga Derby No Word. Domestic Spending didn’t race again until the Hollywood Derby (G1), when he defeated top local sophomore Smooth Like Strait and bested the belatedly closing Gufo again.
Decorated Invader, the 2019 Summer (G1) winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) fourth, was fifth in both the Saratoga and Hollywood Derby. Perhaps most effective at a flat mile, as in his conquest of the Pennine Ridge (G2) back in June, he will be heard from again at the top level. A similar case can be made for the speedy Get Smokin, the Saratoga Derby trailer, who subsequently upset Decorated Invader in the Hill Prince (G2) and finished fourth in the Hollywood Derby.
Colonel Liam, the troubled fourth in the Saratoga Derby, became the latest to advertise the form when resurfacing in Saturday’s Tropical Park Derby. Dominating a decent group at Gulfstream Park, the Todd Pletcher pupil presumably clinched an invitation to the Jan. 23 Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1).
The depth of this year’s Saratoga Derby is entirely domestic. No internationals made the trek in a pandemic-scrambled calendar that upended the traditional timeline for the classics. With a more typical landscape expected next summer, the 2021 edition figures to lure Europeans across the pond once more, and increase the likelihood of living up to its Grade 1 billing.
Saratoga Oaks contrast
The companion Saratoga Oaks Invitational hasn’t made as dramatic a splash, but different circumstances have been in play for the fillies.
First, there’s a structural difference from the Saratoga Derby. The Oaks is in proximity to the established Del Mar Oaks (G1), which offers the coveted Grade 1 label for broodmare value. The Derby, in contrast, is essentially filling the spot on the calendar hitherto held by the Secretariat (G1) at Arlington. When the Saratoga Derby’s distance was pegged at 1 3/16 miles – with a substantially higher $1 million purse – Arlington trimmed the Secretariat to a mile. And with no International Festival of Racing at Arlington in 2020, the Secretariat was off the table altogether.
Yet aside from the calendar, particular circumstances have also affected the Saratoga Oaks. Concrete Rose, the inaugural winner for a $695,000 purse, was very much Grade 1 quality. After her smashing victory in the 2019 Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1), she might have chased potential rivals away from the Spa, where she lorded it over four foes as the 3-10 favorite. Concrete Rose was well on her way to cleaning up more big prizes, until injury intervened.
The 2020 Saratoga Oaks, worth $500,000, went to Antoinette, who was twice placed at the elite level in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) on dirt as well as the Belmont Oaks. But note a counterfactual involving her Bill Mott stablemate Harvey’s Lil Goil. Both were under consideration for the Saratoga Oaks and the Alabama (G1). While Harvey’s Lil Goil ended up with the dirt target and placed third to Swiss Skydiver, she later thrived back on turf, taking the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) and beaten only a neck in third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). If the Mott fillies had reversed roles, and Harvey’s Lil Goil had run in the Saratoga Oaks, she would have given the race a bigger boost.
Even so, the Saratoga Oaks warranted an upgrade, and it’s a newly minted Grade 3 for 2021.
Other grade changes for 2021
The three stakes elevated to Grade 2 level are also turf races: the Red Smith S. at Aqueduct along with two features at Kentucky Downs, the Franklin-Simpson S. and Kentucky Turf Cup S.
Likewise, the four stakes bumped up to Grade 3 status are all staged on turf: the Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint S. at Gulfstream Park; Tourist Mile S. at Kentucky Downs; and in addition to the Saratoga Oaks, the Caress S. at the Spa.
Downgraded from Grade 2 to Grade 3 in 2021 are the Knickerbocker S. at Belmont Park and Palos Verdes S. and Las Virgenes S. at Santa Anita Park, while those slipping from Grade 3 to Listed events are the Discovery S. at Aqueduct; Palm Beach S. and Rampart S. at Gulfstream; Red Bank S. at Monmouth Park; and Santa Anita’s Sen. Ken Maddy S.
A dozen moved up to Listed status for 2021: the CTT and TOC S. at Del Mar; Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf S. and Kentucky Downs Preview Tourist Mile S. at Ellis Park; Pago Hop S. and Tom Benson Memorial S. at Fair Grounds; Dueling Grounds Oaks at Kentucky Downs; Oaklawn Mile S. and Oaklawn S. at Oaklawn Park; Desert Code S. at Santa Anita Park; Mahony S. at Saratoga; Suncoast S. at Tampa Bay Downs; and Kentucky Cup Classic S. at Turfway Park.
The American Graded Stakes Committee operates under the auspices of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. For more on the 2021 graded and listed stakes, visit toba.org.