11/24/2005 12:00AM

A fall tradition is phased out

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NEW YORK - The only true part of the Fall Highweight Handicap on Thanksgiving at Aqueduct was that it was still fall. There were no high weights and the race was only technically a handicap.

They New York Racing Association has been quietly and commendably easing weight out of its best races, and nobody has been noticing or complaining. The Diana at Saratoga was changed to allowance conditions this year and everyone carried either 118 or 120 pounds, probably a transitional step in making the race weight for age, as all Grade 1's should be.

The Fall Highweight, though, seemed one race that might retain the anachronism of weight because high imposts and large spreads were its whole raison d'etre. First run at Belmont in 1914, the race had until this year mandated in its conditions that the topweight among nominees be assigned 140 pounds. This topweight was often not entered for the race, but it was won eight times in 92 years by a horse carrying 140, including Harmonicon (1915), Naturalist (1919), Osmand (1929), Sation (1935), Roman (1941), True North (1945), Ta Wee (1970), and Mt. Livermore (1985). Another 17 winners carried 133 or more.

This year, the 140-pound tradition disappeared and Lion Tamer was ranked best of 25 nominees at just 133 pounds, but was not entered. With the lower ceiling and then four of the five topweights not in the field, that left Thunder Touch as the starting Highweight highweight at just 127. His eight opponents all carried between 123 and 126, a spread so small as to be even more pointless than most exercises in assigning weight.

There were only two Grade 3 winners in the field of nine, Thunder Touch at 127 and Voodoo at 125, reflecting the race's steady decline since the days when it was a factor in determining the nation's best sprinter. Once a Grade 1 event, the Fall Highweight had slipped to a Grade 3 in recent years and this year lost its grading entirely.

Now that it has lost its purpose, too, and is not even being conducted consistently with its name and tradition, it may be time to put it out of its misery entirely and find something else to bridge the gap between the Sport Page in October and the Gravesend in December for second-tier stakes sprinters.

People who think that weight makes a measurable difference in these sorts of races are hard-pressed to explain why the Fall Highweight was not run any slower than similar races where horses carried significantly less weight. The last 13 runnings of the Fall Highweight were run in an average time of 1:09.10, while the Gravesend average for those same years was 1:09.86 - even though the average winning impost in the Highweight those years was 131.3 pounds as opposed to 115.9 in the Gravesend.

So the Highweight winners actually ran a bit faster despite carrying an extra 15 pounds. Any notion that it drew better fields or that track conditions played a role is belied by the identical average winning Beyer Speed Figures of 105 for both races.

As for the Cigar Mile, the only Grade 1 race in New York between the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Wood Memorial, answer quickly: Is it a handicap? Yes it is, for no good reason. There's another pointlessly small spread in a field of 11. Lion Tamer would have been the topweight at 120 but was not entered here either, so Badge of Silver, Imperialism, and Mass Media share high weight of 118. Seven of their eight opponents will carry between 114 and 117. Does anyone actually think these imposts make it a more interesting or competitive race?

Badge of Silver was second in last year's Cigar Mile, a race where no one really noticed or cared about the weights until Braulio Baeza, the former assistant clerk of scales, was indicted, in part for supposedly allowing Jose Santos to weigh out at 123 pounds after riding Lion Tamer to victory at an assigned 115. The entire weight investigation seems to be unravelling as it now seems that the Keystone Kops investigators were unaware of the intricacies of what equipment is counted toward official imposts. But let's say purely for argument's sake that Santos rode a pound or two over that day. Do we really think the race would have turned out differently had Santos weighed in two pounds lighter? And if not, why are we bothering to assign these minuscule differences in so-called handicap races?

The game would be better at every level if the only reasons horses carried different weights in a race was because of their age or gender.