07/28/2010 2:34PM

Call for a new handicapping system


The issue of weight in America is rarely addressed. Some handicappers, in the mistaken belief that a few pounds one way or another make no difference to horses that weigh 1,000 to 1,200 pounds themselves, ignore it entirely. In weighting graded race handicaps, track handicappers give weight secondary consideration to their prime objective of weighting the big horse as lowly as possible in an effort to insure that horse's presence at their track.

The Arlington Handocap two weeks ago provided an all too common example of this when four horses were weighted so low that they wound up carrying from 2 to 5 lbs. overweight, primarily because the highweights Marsh Side and General Quarters were assigned a feathery 122. Imponente Purse wound up carrying 5 lbs. over and Cross Village 4 lbs., while Rumor Has It and Princeville Condo both carried 2 lbs. over. That they were all longshots with little chance of victory is beside the point. If, as is the theory, handicap weights are assigned in an effort to get all of the horses in such races to finish in a deadheat for first, weighting races that always wind up with numerous horses carrying overweight defeats the purpose of running handicaps at all.

The problems incurred in the Arlington Handicap could be eliminated if there was a board of handicappers that could assign a handicap rating to all horses that run in graded stakes. That would provide a national handicapping system that would virtually eliminate overweights and also insure that the best horses in such races would carry reasonable weights. The high rated horse in a handicap would always carry 130 lbs, regardless of his rating. A horse rated 2 lbs. lower than the highest rated horse would carry 128, a horse rated 5 lbs. lower than the highest rated horse would carry 125. This would insure that low rated horses would almost always be assigned a weight high enough to avoid any overweight.

Is this not reasonable, given the average size of the contemporary jockey? Moreover, a handicap system like this could eliminate the handwringing we go through every year at Kentucky Derby time, when superior horses are eliminated at the expense of inferior horses with greater graded stakes earnings.

Dick Mandella and the Wertheimer brothers, the connections of Setsuko, and Wesley Ward and Mr. and Mrs Kenneth Ramsey, in charge of Pleasant Prince, all had plenty to complain about at this year's Derby when their horses were bumped out of the Run for the Roses for lack of graded stakes earnings. Both colts, however, were clearly more accomplished than the bottom horses in the Derby, most notably Make Music For Me and Backtalk.

In no other country in the world would horses that had placed in Grade 1 races been denied entry to a race as important as the Derby. Runners-up in the Santa Anita Derby and the Florida Derby, their best efforts far outstripped those of Make Music For Me, whose best try had been when winning the ungraded Pasadena Stakes on turf at Santa Anita, or Backtalk, whose 3-year-old best was his victory in the ungraded Sports Paradise Stakes at Delta Downs.

The graded race earnings system has outlived its usefulness. That money won in 2-year-old graded races or in sprints at any age should aid a horse in getting a spot in the Derby is absurd, yet that is exactly how Make Music For Me and Backtalk got into the race.

Tweaking the current system by instituting a graded race points system is not the answer, however. Neither would Mandella's suggestion to select up to five Derby starters through a selection committee. These would be merely half measures.

The answer lies indeveloping a European style handicapping system, one in which horses are given a handicap rating each time they run in a graded stakes race. This would differ considerably from the handicapping systems used in every European country, where horses are given a rating by each nation's Jockey Club handicapping team after every start. American racing is too far flung for that kind of endeavor.

But we can rate horses that run in graded stakes. The manpower is already in place, as Del Mar's Tom Robbins among others have had experience rating horses for the World Thoroughbred Rankings, which uses a system similar to those used daily in Britain, Ireland and France.

The Racing Post Ratings (RPR) produced by the British racing daily the Racing Post, and which appear in the Daily Racing Form past performances for foreign races, is a similar system. Using RPR's to determine the Kentucky Derby field, we find that Pleasant Prince's rating of 116 was lower than only Lookin At Lucky's 118, Sidney's Candy's 118 and Noble's Promise's 117, and was equal to Ice Box's 116, as it should be since Pleasant Prince finished just a nose behind him in the Florida Derby. Setsuko earned an RPR of 109 for his Santa Anita Derby second, a rating higher than five of the horses that ran in the Derby.

One may differ with the Racing Post's particular ratings of these horses, but there is no arguing that handicap ratings determined by experienced American racing officials would have placed Pleasant Prince and Setsuko above Make Music For me and Backtalk.

It would be difficult work at first in developing a system of graded race handicap ratings, but after a few months the system would have ironed itself out. And these ratings would be used primarily to avoid the fiasco of ludicrous overweights in the Arlington Handicap.

Some American trainers might complain that carrying 130 lbs. is too much for a horse to carry in any race, but it is necessary to have a high highweight so that low rated horses would still be carrying sensible weights. And no horse would ever be asked to carry more than 130 lbs. As Steve Cauthen, who had 15 years experience riding under the handicap system in England, once said, "Weight is relative."