06/22/2009 2:30PM

Heavy Duty

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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.

Jay Hovdey More than 1 year ago
Paseana...I've been told the remains of Native Diver and Landaluce will be properly handled and relocated, but until the demolition of the track starts there probably will be no plan in place. Let's keep on them--director of racing Martin Panza is a good pressure point.
Paseana More than 1 year ago
Jay, this is so much at the tail end of your blog post that I'm not sure you'll see it......and it's totally off topic. But here goes anyway! You talked about the impending demise of Hollywood Park in your recent article about the American Hcp and American Oaks. One thing you mentioned in your piece is something that I don't think anyone besides you and I have thought of. I would hope that, before the wrecking ball and bulldozers come in, there would be a plan in place to save the remains of Native Diver and Landaluce. They may consist of urns full of ashes, but it's impossible to deal with the idea that they just get plowed under. Sorry to take this so horribly off-topic, but I've been thinking about this issue for the last month or so, and your mention of it was validation of my concern. I sure hope somebody at Hollywood Park is thinking about this.
Richard Helfman More than 1 year ago
This has nothing to do with The Great Zenyatta, who got my vote for HOTY in 2008. I recently began a blog and wanted to post a picture of a particular horse which was originally from a magazine and which I then took a picture of with my digital camera, but I didn't know what the copyright parameters were in relation to blogging. Could you give me a clue as to where I could go to find out the appropriate laws? Many thanks.
Nick Kling More than 1 year ago
Jay, Congratulations to you for defending handicap racing. Opponents of handicap racing who argue it confounds Eclipse voting and championship awards reveal a profound laziness. If someone who possesses an Eclipse ballot can't factor wins, losses, and margins of victory or defeat created by handicaps, he or she should surrender their right to vote. Are most current handicaps a mockery? Of course. Does that mean we should abandon such a historic part of Thoroughbred racing instead of trying to fix it? No, it does not.
sid fernando More than 1 year ago
richiebee:Gold Beauty was the dam of Maplejinsky -- the dam of Sky Beauty.
sid fernando More than 1 year ago
carrying 130 should probably be equated to a 20-game winner, which is still a major accomplishment in the days of five-man rotations; to win 30 games, which McLain did in '68, was rare, even with 4-man rotations. before him, the next 30-game winner was dizzy dean in '32.
bks More than 1 year ago
George, if you're not impressed by Zenyatta, then there's no one to be impressed by. She's never taken a deep breath, and yet other than Rachel Alexandra, there's not a filly or mare that's demonstrated an ability to run anywhere NEAR her. So get a grip. She would crush males out in CA too, and in my view she should be permitted to. If she ran in the Gold Cup with 115 lbs. or so, she'd be 4-5 deservingly. If Life is Sweet runs competitively in the Gold Cup, maybe her connections will get some courage.
Joseph R. Benson More than 1 year ago
George Quinn: Zenyatta already showed she could run on dirt, EASILY rolling home in the Apple Blossom last year. We never get to see the best of her because the connections are too conservative with her and in my eyes never is pushed too hard (Because she doesn't have to be). She just cruises on by the whole field like they are standing still.
richiebee More than 1 year ago
Thanks for posting the photo of Sky Beauty, wearing the Hoffman colors, also carried by the great Gold Beauty (dam of Sky Beauty), Eclipse Award winning sprinter and world class producer
El Angelo More than 1 year ago
Traditions need to make sense to logically continue. I see nothing wrong with having all horses carry equal weight, and that has nothing to do with gambling or handicapping. It's fundamental fairness: the point of a race is to see who can get to the end the fastest, period. No other sport imposes penalties on someone for being better.