Wednesday, 20 June 2018


You sometimes wonder whether it would be best to discontinue 'the Pattern', so amok and out of control it now is. Erratically mismanaged, it has morphed into something which clearly had not been intended when it was first introduced in 1971.

The original concept was to grade the races at the top end of the spectrum with the Group 1 events being given the seal of approval as the creme de la creme of the thoroughbred world, being the races that would be globally recognised as such and the ones which would go some way to deciding on what level a stallion would begin his new career.

For it to work though, checks and balances would have to be put in place whereby the races would be continually scrutinised and reassessed when necessary. The intention of this was that, for example, if a Group 2 race continually produced winners that were rated above average for the level of contest, then the race would be considered for elevation in grade.

Likewise, a Group 1 event that was being won routinely by horses who were otherwise not cutting the mustard at that level would be considered for downgrade. It was intended that the numbers were kept manageable and a balance sought in the number of upgraded and downgraded events. Changes were not to be made too hastily.

For a short while, the races were governed as planned, though there was one change that raised many eyebrows. This being the decision to move the King's Stand Stakes down a notch to Group 2 in 1988, while the race known then as the Vernon's Sprint Cup went the other way. It was seen in some quarters as a move to give flat racing in the North a boost, but there was no justification for downgrading the Ascot event.

The King's Stand Stakes probably generated more of a buzz than even the July Cup and Nunthorpe. It would be the first opportunity for the three-year-olds to take on the older sprinters. Some like Godswalk and Solinus where dyed in the wool sprinters who were never considered as Guineas prospects. Others, like Marwell, had failed to last home at Newmarket and were reverting back down in trip. In Marwell's case, who had been beaten in Fairy Footstep's Guineas, she had dropped down successfully in trip in the Gus Demmy at Haydock before lining up at Ascot.

Taking a look at the preceding ten years leading up to the Ascot event being demoted, the roll of honour, in addition to Marwell, included Solinus, Double Form, Habibti, Never So Bold and Last Tycoon.

For the same period, the Haydock race could also boast Habibti and Double Form, in addition to Moorestyle, Green Desert and Ajdal. There wasn't much in it. The Ascot race was showing no signs of fading, the Haydock event was producing winners of a similar quality. 

Mindful of the cautious spirit of which the whole system was intended, here was a rare case where there was a solid foundation to upgrade the Vernons without demoting any of the other three Group 1 sprints.

Fast forward the clock to this week and you see how it has all gone pear-shaped. Blue Point's King Stand victory yesterday was helped by the fact that Equilateral and Sioux Nation have the Commonwealth Cup to run in, while if Blue Point runs again in the Diamond Jubilee on Saturday, he will face amongst others, Harry Angel, Redkirk Warrior and Merchant Navy who were not in the King's Stand.

Admittedly, this is not a wholly fair argument. The fact that there are now three Group 1 sprints at Royal Ascot ( the King's Stand reverted to the highest grade in 2008) helps entice the foreign raiders. But a fair appraisal of the changes would have to arrive at the conclusion that the original King's Stand generated more anticipation, a better field and with it a superior winner on average than what the race produces now allied with the other two events.

The Golden Jubilee was originally the Cork and Orrey, an event that may have suited Equilateral if connections did not want to take on the field in what could have been a  King's Stand brimming with quality. The Commonwealth Cup lays on relatively easy Group One pickings for three year olds and delays the generation clash in the sprinting division, which was one of the most interesting aspects of the meeting.

Globally, the Pattern system has gone out of control on a larger scale than here. Australia a prime example where it's nothing short of chaos. There are also many soft Grade 1 turf events in the States. In fact, when they upgraded the likes of the Sun Chariot and Falmouth Stakes, and the Gilltown come Matron Stakes, and Pretty Polly Stakes in Ireland, they cited that the older fillies and mares were being prised away Stateside by their generous programme of Grade 1 Mares and Fillies events.

Another area to consider when looking at some dubious upgradings are the races that were originally used as seasonal debut events, stepping stones to the first big challenge of the season. The Lockinge Stakes and Ballymoss Stakes come Tattersall Rogers Gold Cup, are prime examples of this and still very much emit a feel of being prep events as opposed to the real thing. It matters not the names of the winners, more so the circumstances of the victories. A few fit and ready Group 2 or 3 performers, against a not fully wound up top-notch performer.

Supporters of the new relaxed approach would point out that old way was frugal. For example, the Prince of Wales like the Tattersalls Rogers, was more of a trial for the Eclipse and King George V1 Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, not receiving top status until 2000. Another point to bear in mind was that the Coronation Cup was already in the top status, but emanated the feeling, and still does, as more of a trial for the mid-summer events.

And for the three-year-olds who had been competitive in the English and Irish Guineas but who were true milers, the St James Palace Stakes, like the Coronation Stakes, did not become a Group 1 until 1988. Hard to believe that when Brigadier Gerard won it in the first season of the Pattern, that when Kris beat Young Generation in 1979, and when To Agori Mou beat King's Like their first grudge rematch when Greville Starkey gave the two finger sign to Pat Eddery, it was still a Group 2.

Finally, no matter how much the original intention was to keep to a strict monitoring of the races and re-asses only when sure, there are some events that would never have and never will be downgraded. The Ascot Gold Cup and St Leger are two prime examples. They've both had many winners that fall below genuine performers of the highest level but are untouchable. 

If you want to be cynical you can cite the Goodwood Cup, upgraded mainly to reward the sponsors prize money boost, a consideration not in the original 'handbook', is also a buffer in the sense that if in the unlikely circumstances they changed direction and began to prune these races, the Goodwood Cup would be there to be demoted before the Ascot event.

Perhaps the biggest sufferer of the free for all Group One world is the King GeorgeV1 and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes which was the mid-summer jewel in the crown but is a race that has lost its edge for those over a certain age.

In reality, there is no going back now as too many powerful worldwide factions in the breeding industry would simply not permit it to happen. But one still can't help take much of this grading with a pinch of salt. 

For just like when the football stats crunchers compare the Champions League with the old European Cup and announce that so and so has broken his club's record for the number of appearances in the competition, we can give little credence to tallies of Group 1 successes, whether it be from horses, owners, trainers or jockeys.

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