01/29/2015 1:03PM

Crist: Experimental once again too close to call


Only one of the 17 Eclipse Award categories turned out to have a close tally this year: champion 2-year-old male, where American Pharoah outpolled Texas Red by just 15 votes, 126-111. The narrow distance between them was endorsed on Thursday when The Jockey Club announced that the two colts would share the top weight of 126 pounds on the Experimental Free Handicap for 2-year-olds of 2014.

It was just the ninth time in the last 50 years that the Experimental handicappers could not settle on a sole topweight and instead rated the Eclipse winner no better than another horse or two in the division.

The other ties were between champion Deputy Minister and Timely Writer in 1981; champion Roving Boy and Copelan in 1982; champion Tasso and Ogygian in 1985; champion Dehere and Brocco in 1993; champion Maria’s Mon and Unbridled’s Song in 1995; champion Lookin At Lucky and Vale of York in 2009; and champion Hansen and Union Rags in 2011. In 2003, there was a triple dead heat among champion Action This Day, Cuvee, and Ruler’s Court.

Only once since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971 has the champion 2-year-old not been the Experimental topweight or co-topweight: last year, when the handicappers rated Eclipse runner-up New Year’s Day at 126 and Eclipse winner Shared Belief at 125.

The Experimental is a useful and entertaining old-timey racing tradition. It has been around since 1933 and provided the weights for some actual races from 1942-57. Since then, it has been a theoretical rather than a practical exercise, one that works in two ways – not only in providing relative comparisons within a single juvenile crop but sometimes also singling out a topweight as extraordinarily strong in relation to the best juveniles of the modern era.

American Pharoah and Texas Red were both rated at 126 pounds, the standard topweight assignment. (The Experimental also ranks fillies, separately from the colts since 1984, with a standard topweight assignment of 123, the impost given this year to both champion Take Charge Brandi and grass runner Lady Eli.)

There is hardly any disgrace in the top colts being rated at “only” 126, the impost also assigned to eventual Hall of Famers Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, and Easy Goer. In 10 of the last 50 years, however, the handicappers rated their topweight above 126.

Bold Lad (1964) and Arazi (1991) were given 130 pounds; Secretariat (1972) was given 129; Silent Screen (1969), Devil’s Bag (1983), Favorite Trick (1997), and Uncle Mo (2010) got 128; and Foolish Pleasure (1974), Street Sense (2006), and War Pass (2007) each got 127.

Those 10 outstanding juveniles went on to account for three Kentucky Derby wins (Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, and Street Sense), but it is worth noting that in the 40 years since Foolish Pleasure in 1974, only Street Sense won a classic after being rated above 126 as a 2-year-old. Devil’s Bag, Arazi, Favorite Trick, War Pass, and Uncle Mo were exceptional 2-year-olds but never went on to exceed their juvenile accomplishments.

The handicappers – this year’s panel consisted of racing officials P.J. Campo, Ben Huffman, Martin Panza, and Tom Robbins – were right not to rate anyone over 126 this time around. No one did anything historic, American Pharoah missed the division’s most important race, and Texas Red was soundly beaten by American Pharoah in their one meeting before going on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This does not, however, necessarily mean that this will be an ordinary group.

Neither of the topweights has raced yet this year, but they’ve been highly flattered by the results of the earliest classic preps: Calculator, who was twice second to American Pharoah, looked good in winning the Sham by 4 1/4 lengths Jan. 10. So did Upstart, a 5 1/2-length winner of the Holy Bull at Gulfstream last Saturday in his first start since running third to Texas Red in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Take those four, add in the unbeaten Dortmund, and include Todd Pletcher’s quartet of Blofeld, Carpe Diem, Competitive Edge, and Daredevil, and we’ve already got the makings of a very talented crop. This could be fun.