06/22/2009 2:30PM

Heavy Duty


While Zenyatta was getting a massage in her stall at the John Shirreffs barn late Sunday morning, Hollywood Park racing secretary Martin Panza was signing off on her 129-pound weight assignment for the Vanity Handicap, coming up this Saturday. Both activities were meant to stir the blood.

On the face of it, Zenyatta should be able to carry the kitchen stove and handle whatever bubbles up in the West Coast female talent pool. For the past year, she has reduced respectable fillies and mares to racing's version of the Washington Generals. But to this point in her career, Zenyatta has raced outside of California only once, and there are no immediate plans to put her on the bus. As long as she is going to be running in her own backyard, carrying an historically significant amount of weight is the only way to enhance her reputation.

Shirreffs was braced for 128. Now he's got to swallow the equivalent of four more quarter-pounders. This is a tango that has been danced for decades. Charlie Whittingham used to take his big black dog Tar into the Santa Anita racing office when Lou Eilken was compiling weights for a rich handicap. Tar wouldn't need to do much other than be Tar--kind of like Frankie Pentangeli's quietly threatening older brother from Sicily, sitting in the back of the Senate Mafia hearings in Godfather Part II--and Eilken would receive the subliminal message. But by then, Whittingham had already set up the weight he wanted by losing a couple earlier handicaps. It was up to Eilken and his boss, Jimmy Kilroe, not to let Charlie get away with it too often.

Since it is not in Zenyatta's nature to lose a race (10-for-10 and counting), such an option was not available to Shirreffs. The only way Zenyatta will get to carry less weight--if that becomes the point--is by running against males, sitting tight until the handicaps run out, or allowing herself to be shopped around to other tracks, where more accommodating assignments might be offered.

There is a movement afoot to strip all handicaps of their Grade 1 status. The drum is being thumped by those who have justifiably lost all faith in the intergrity or even the viability of the weighting process, and who feel that the best races should be decided at level weights. Unfortunately, they also exhibit a misplaced faith in American Graded Stakes Committee, which has sacrificed both logic and tradition--a good trick!--in clinging to garbage-in/garbage-out calculations that end up deeming the Jamaica Handicap every bit as important as the Whitney Handicap or the Santa Anita Handicap. Fix that and we'll talk about what to do with handicaps.

 Sky Beauty Denny   Sky Beauty/DennyMcLain

Racehorses are measured and tested six ways from Sunday before greatness is bestowed. It is the mingling of these many measuring sticks that calulates the final answer. They include durability, consistency and speed, not to mention the company they keep, along with the ability to carry weight and compete over a variety of surfaces at a variety of tracks. It also helps to have a catchy name.

They all can't be Dr. Fager, but that's no reason not to try. The rare horse who comes along justifying a 129-pound package and the attendant spread in weights is a treat, a throwback, and a reminder that horses can make headlines for doing something other than winning a Kentucky Derby.

If Zenyatta can successfully carry 129 in the Vanity, she could be headed for the magic 130 pounds, a number so rare these days that it hangs out there in horse racing like the 30-game winner in baseball. For the record, Denny McLain was the last pitcher to win 30 games, in 1968, while the last filly or mare to win a significant race under 130 pounds was Sky Beauty, in the 1994 Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park. But, then, only a handful of pitchers even win 20 anymore. And the Ruffian is no longer a handicap.