02/26/2002 12:00AM

Arbitrary burdens hit a low point


ARCADIA, Calif. - The charade is exposed, and what a relief. There is no longer any need to pretend. With its twin "highweights" at a ridiculous 118 pounds and its empty promotion as racing's ultimate "Big Cap," this Saturday's Santa Anita "Handicap" has exhausted my monthly supply of sarcastic "quotation marks," but hopefully in a good cause.

The intention is not to trash a treasured piece of history. At its best, the Santa Anita Handicap has been a thorough and honest test of a horse's ability to run hard over a distance of ground against the best the game could muster, no matter what weight was carried. Still, racing fans owe a special debt of gratitude to horses like Seabiscuit, Discovery, Citation, Round Table, Gun Bow, Ack Ack. and King Pellinore. Whether they won or lost, they all hauled the arbitrary load.

Through most of the 20th century, handicaps ruled. A horse could win all the Jockey Club Gold Cups in the world at weight for age, but unless, at some point, he was able to give 27 pounds to an inferior horse and still beat him a half a length, his tongue dragging all the way back to the barn, he was deemed less than worthy to be lumped among the great.

We were told, ever since we could reach up and push a grandstand turnstile, that handicaps were required to improve the breed. We were told that handicaps were necessary to create competitive betting contests. We were told, again and again, that if a big race was not a handicap, no one would show up to run against the favorite, and the public would be hung out to dry.

Imagine that. We were told wrong. All of those tales about Exterminator, Roseben, Armed, Devil Diver, Stymie, Decathlon, and Tom Fool were just horse hooey. They didn't need to carry all that weight to be great. They carried all that weight because a bunch of guys in suits and ties were hooked on a fetish that traced to the breeding of horses for mounted warfare.

Hewing to a twisted interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis (that Man should have "dominion over . . . every creeping thing that creepeth over the earth"), these racing secretaries/handicappers felt a need to manipulate the abilities of the best runners in the name of the gambling public. Since staggered starts were impractical, the only thing left was the leaded saddlepad.

Crazy, and downright creepy. It should be enough for a top horse to travel, to run at a variety of distances, over a variety of surfaces, and reproduce his best race time after time. Beyond that, his place in history will be determined by his speed, his longevity, and the company he keeps.

Certainly, there should be a few pounds of concession depending upon age, and perhaps even sex, since there are specific laws of physical development that cannot be denied. But the arbitrary assignment of weights based on previous arbitrary assignments of weights no longer has a place in the modern racing game. Today, handicap weights have dribbled so low that jockey overweights make a mockery of the concept. And no one truly believes that one pound (or four Quarter Pounders) really makes a difference. Perhaps someday - through competition, enlightenment, or guilt - racing managements will wean themselves from the idea that weight brings a field together, and that the best horses must bear unreasonable loads.

Now, back to the problem of the Santa Anita Handicap. Defenders of the weighting game will point to such thrilling renewals as the 1938 running, in which Stagehand carried 30 pounds less than Seabiscuit and beat him a nose, or the 1953 thriller, when Mark-Ye-Well carried 18 pounds more than Trusting and still beat him a head. A racing secretary would take credit for such finishes, and there would be no way to wipe the smile off his face, since the race could not be run again at level weights.

In truth, there was nothing honorable about the way the weights for the Santa Anita Handicap were assigned before the mid-1960's. In those days, the weights were announced in December, nearly three months before the race, in order to accommodate action in the Santa Anita Handicap future book operated by Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana.

As a result, you could hide a horse early and then let him develop as a contender, without the penalty of added weight. This would explain, for example, why Prove It could win both the San Fernando and Santa Anita Maturity in 1961, then sneak into the Santa Anita Handicap with a mere 115 pounds. He won that one, too.

Perhaps the only hurdle left is the name. (Don't get hung up on its nickname, the Big Cap, which came into play as merely an advertising tag in the 1970's.) Hollywood Park had no problem changing its Gold Cup to weight for age, since being a handicap was never part of its public image. The Pacific Classic was created as a weight for age race, while New Yorkers were happy to call one of their major events simply the Woodward after it shed its handicap past.

Which leaves the suggestion box open. What shall we call the most important race of the Santa Anita meet, once it is no longer a handicap? The Santa Anita Super G? Too Olympic. How about the Santa Anita Grande? Naw, sounds like fast food.

Perhaps something simple and direct. Jack up the purse, blow the Donn and Dubai out of the water, and just call it . . . The Big One. Why? Because everybody wants to win the big one.