Updated on 09/15/2011 12:29PM

Fleet runners, heavy burdens

Email
Benoit & Associates
Caller One (with blinkers) wins the Los Angeles Handicap in his last start. In Sunday's Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood, he will carry 126 pounds. That was nothing in the old days, but it's a rare assignment for a modern sprinter.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Walter Vosburgh was a racing secretary in the days when the job required a certain appreciation for the devices of persuasion employed during the Spanish Inquisition. They say he used to take mordant delight at the sight of a great horse hauling a huge amount of weight in one of his famous handicaps. If the horse won, Vosburgh took note. Perhaps a bit more lead was required next time in order to level the playing field.

This, of course, was pure socialism. But in horse racing, there was a case to be made for such artificial manipulation. For the fans, vast weight spreads added an intriguing element to the challenge of picking winners. Breeders looked to handicaps as a method of weeding out false champions. Owners took comfort in the hope that their lesser beasts might one day steal a big pot, if given enough of a break in the weights.

Even the press latched onto great weight carriers, endowing them with mythic proportions and giving them catchy nicknames. More importantly, reporters kept things in perspective and gave credit where credit was due. As a result, when a horse like Armed carried 130 pounds in the

1948 Gulfstream Park Handicap and lost by a nose to Rampart, under 108, it was Rampart who got the check, but Armed who got the praise. Vosburgh's name lived on in the Vosburgh Handicap, a seven-furlong New York race that was inaugurated in 1940 and became the Breeders' Cup Sprint of its day. Old Walter would have relished the sight of Bold Ruler winning his race under 130, or Forego winning it under 131, or Dr. Fager cruising home under 139. Yes, 139.

Vosburgh's disciples - including Jimmy Kilroe, Tommy Trotter, and Kenny Noe - perpetuated this philosophy at the top of the game until deep into the 1970's, when Forego reigned as the last great carrier of serious handicap weights over a prolonged career. Then, with shocking speed, the heavyweight era was over.

Some will point to the proliferation of rich handicaps in direct competition for the same pool of horses. Owners and trainers were suddenly in a sellers' market, and even though they were not able to assign their own weights, they certainly could float a number and see which track snapped it up.

Others claim it happened because Laz Barrera refused to accept Affirmed's handicap assignment for the 1979 Marlboro Cup, and then Bud Delp did the same thing in 1980 when he withheld Spectacular Bid from the same important race. Hats off to the racing secretaries who held firm in the face of such pressure. But modern corporate sponsors and racetrack marketers can be forgiven if they fail to understand why they have been deprived of a marquee name over a matter of 32 ounces.

The ultimate irony occurred in 1979, when the Vosburgh Handicap was changed to a weight-for-age event. Since then, if you haven't already noticed, nothing has been sacred.

And horsemen no longer expect the Spanish Inquisition when weights are issued for major handicaps. Weight spreads have become insignificant, while jockey overweights have rendered even the most carefully crafted assignments meaningless.

That is why Sunday's $300,000 Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park is shaping up as a very special event. Caller One, winner of Dubai's Golden Shaheen in March and the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park in his most recent start, is scheduled to run under 126 pounds, giving eight pounds and up to those who will try to catch him.

Now, 126 is hardly a number to buckle the knees, especially when a horse is mentioned as a potential champion. Caller One has a long way to go before he can match the feats of such champion sprinters as Decathlon, who won the 1957 Hialeah Inaugural Handicap under 135 and gave the runner-up 18 pounds,

or Affectionately, who won the 1965 Vagrancy Handicap under 137 and gave the second horse 26 pounds, or Ta Wee, who carried 140 in winning the 1970 Interborough Handicap when runner-up Hasty Hitter carried 113.

Still, Caller One should not be held accountable for the downtrend in weight assignments. He can only be measured against horses of his own era and judged accordingly. If he wins a handicap under 126, he would be doing something that only two sprint champions have done since 1990. Those two were Housebuster, who did it twice, and reigning champ Kona Gold, who did it in his most recent start.

Kona Gold has been given a racing break during the Hollywood Park meet. He will resume his march to the Breeders' Cup Sprint on July 22 in the Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar, and if the racing secretary doesn't blink, the champ should be carrying 127 by then. Caller One is likely to get his breather after this weekend and then be pointed toward the Breeders' Cup Sprint at the end of October in New York. It could be the race of the day.

In the meantime, on Sunday, Caller One has a chance to chalk one up for tradition. Okay, call it tradition lite. But bear in mind - when Triple Bend himself set the world's record for seven furlongs while winning the 1972 Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park, he was carrying only 123 pounds.