02/06/2004 1:00AM

Grade 1 handicaps belong in past

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NEW YORK - Barry Bonds doesn't have to hit with a 10-pound bat, and they don't make Shaquille O'Neal wear cast-iron sneakers to keep him from dunking. So why does racing handicap its stars?

We don't use handicap weights in the sport's very top-shelf events, the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, and no one thinks that would be a good idea. Yet, 33 of the other 90 Grade 1 races run last year had "Handicap" in their name, while dozens of others had allowance conditions that amounted to the same thing - making the more accomplished horses carry extra weight to increase the chance they would lose.

If you remove the Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds, most of which thankfully are run at scale weights, surely more than half of the rest of the Grade 1 races are run as handicaps. The distressingly long list includes many of the marquee races throughout the year that decide national championships, including the Donn, Santa Anita, Pimlico Special, Metropolitan, Stephen Foster, Haskell, and Whitney, not to mention most of the top races for older fillies and grass runners.

Weight no longer serves any useful purpose in racing. No one can seriously argue that we are trying to improve the heavy-lifting qualities of the breed, and in a world of multiple wagering it is no longer necessary to use weights to make betting appear more interesting. If you don't want 3-5 on the best horse at level weights, go bet the exacta.

Weight is a distraction, an annoyance, an unfunny Stupid Pet Trick. Why do we find it sporting or amusing to inflict an extra burden on the most talented horse and tie bars of lead around him? Why not blindfold him or poke him in the nose before a race and see if that can get him beat?

No other sport tries to make its most talented performers lose by giving inferior competitors an advantage. The time seems especially right to address the issue because the sport is on the verge of gaining wider television exposure for major summer races for older horses, most of which, unfortunately, are still handicaps. How are we supposed to explain to novice audiences why it's fair or fun that the star horse who just got nosed might have lost because he was forced to carry 10 more pounds than the winner?

Racing's continued use of weight is an exasperating issue because no one seems to like it but no one seems willing to do anything about it. The racing secretaries at major circuits say they would be relieved to get out of the unpleasant and highly politicized business of assigning handicap weights; leading trainers and owners have said Grade 1 races should not be handicaps; the sport's promoters would be happy to see the issue disappear; and various customer surveys have shown the fans are not intrigued by the practice.

Yet it remains, because racing has no leadership when it comes to actual racing matters. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and The Jockey Club provide useful services to the industry in areas such as marketing, sponsorship, breed registration, and technology, but no one addresses the way the racing game itself is played.

A two-pronged approach may be necessary. First, the trustees and managers of the major tracks and racing associations that put on the majority of Grade 1 handicaps should consider changing the conditions of their major races. With only three companies (Churchill Downs, Magna Entertainment, and the New York Racing Association) staging the vast majority of the nation's Grade 1 races, a unilateral decision to phase out handicap conditions in Grade 1 races would be easier to achieve now than ever before.

The other group that could agitate for change is the Graded Stakes Committee, which already has used the power of awarding Grade 1 status to races in an attempt to influence medication policy and minimum purses. What would happen if the GSC announced that beginning in 2006, it would no longer consider handicap races Grade 1 events? A few cranky traditionalists nostalgic for the days of cavalries might grumble, but the sport's most important races immediately would become more clear, fair, and attractive.

There simply is no good reason to keep things the way they are. That can be said about many things in racing, but in this case change would be as simple and straightforward as it is overdue.