01/23/2014 4:44PM

History challenge: Experimental Handicap briefly was a real race

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For the 80th time, 2-year-olds of the previous year will be weighted in the Experimental Free Handicap, scheduled to be released in the coming week by The Jockey Club.

In recent years, the Experimental has been based on a mythical race of 1 1/16 miles on dirt at the end of the juvenile season, but the mission has changed several times since the first listing was released in 1933.

Legendary New York racing official, historian, and author Walter Vosburgh compiled the first Experimental, then called the Two-Year-Old Handicap. It was modeled after the long-established “Free Handicap” in England.

Vosburgh – whose name lives on in a Grade 1 invitational sprint run each fall – retired in 1934, and no rankings were issued that year.

John B. Campbell, who assumed the role of official handicapper for The Jockey Club, resumed the Experimental in 1935, and it has been issued every year since. Frank E. “Jimmy” Kilroe took over the duties from 1954-60, followed by Tommy Trotter and Kenny Noe Jr.

Beginning in 1979, The Jockey Club appointed a committee of three racing officials to develop the Experimental Free. Six years later, for the first time, separate lists for males and females were established.

The committee for the 2013 rankings was composed of P.J. Campo of the Stronach Group, Ben Huffman of Churchill Downs and Keeneland, and Tom Robbins of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Test your knowledge of the Experimental Free Handicap over the years.

1. Describing the early years of the Experimental Free Handicap, Daily Racing Form columnist John Hervey in 1936 called it “productive of food for argument, discussion, and readjustment by other less eminent handicappers, of all kinds.”

Early on, turf writers argued frequently whether the Experimental should rate only performances as 2-year-olds or be a predictor of how horses will perform as 3-year-olds in longer races.

In some years, it appeared that Campbell was trying to do a little of both. In 1943, he stopped all the questioning and controversy with a letter that received widespread attention. What did Campbell write?

2. As the Experimental Free Handicap became institutionalized in the late 1930s, some horsemen began clamoring for a race or races where horses would compete with each other at age 3, carrying the weights assigned in the Experimental.

They got their wish in 1940, when a six-furlong, $5,000 race was established called the Experimental Handicap (the “Free” was added in 1942), open only to horses who were weighted on the Experimental, and weights carried in the race were the same as they were on the Experimental.

The race was renamed the Experimental Free Handicap No. 1 in 1946, when the same track added an Experimental Free Handicap No. 2 at 1 1/16 miles under the same conditions.

Where were the two races contested, and what happened to them?

3. While Cavalcade was clearly the choice of turf writers for champion 2-year-old of 1933 (official polling did not begin until 1936), Vosburgh placed that colt one pound lower than his 126-pound highweight, First Minstrel, on the first Experimental.

And, if one takes into account that a five-pound sex allowance for 2-year-old females was then in effect, both colts placed behind the sensational champion filly Mata Hari, who was assigned 122 pounds. Mata Hari beat colts in the Breeders’ Futurity and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

Cavalcade went on to win the Kentucky Derby at odds of 3-2 and be acclaimed Horse of the Year in 1934. Mata Hari ran a respectable fourth in the Derby at 6-1.

In the history of the Experimental Free Handicap, only once has a filly ever been assigned the actual highweight. Name her.

4. From the inception of the Experimental Free Handicap, 126 pounds was intended to be the benchmark highweight for the top male of the year. That has, in fact, been the case in all but 16 (20 percent) of the 79 years the weights have been compiled.

All 16 exceptions have been assigned 127 pounds or more.

Clearly, there has been reluctance by some handicappers to stray from the 126, while others have done so in puzzling situations. Seattle Slew (1976), Affirmed (1977), and Spectacular Bid (1978) each headed their respective lists, but at only 126 pounds, while Silent Screen (1969) and Devil’s Bag (1983) were assigned 128 pounds – one fewer than Secretariat (1972).

Name the six horses over the years who were assigned more weight on the Experimental Free Handicap than Secretariat.

5. The Experimental Free, combined with the Dosage Index, has attracted a following from some fans during Triple Crown season. So-called “dual qualifiers” include horses ranked within 10 pounds of the top Experimental weight and with a Dosage Index of less than 4.0.

Considering that in the past 10 years, 14 horses who won a Triple Crown race were not even rated anywhere on the Experimental, using such figures hardly seems reliable.

In the past decade, three Experimental highweights or co-highweights did win one Triple Crown race each. Name them.

Answers

1. While many argued that the Experimental Free Handicap should consider only a horse’s performance during his juvenile season, John Campbell wrote a letter in 1943 explaining that his purpose in issuing weights each year for the 2-year-olds was primarily a forecast of how they would perform as 3-year-olds.

He wrote that the Experimental “is based mainly on my opinion of what the 2-year-olds will accomplish as 3-year-olds at distances of 1 1/8 miles or greater.” (He did not have to specify turf or dirt because at the time, there were only a handful of grass tracks in America.)

For the next quarter-century, The Jockey Club followed Campbell’s dictum.  However, in 1969, a new rule was instituted whereby the Experimental was applied only to performance as a 2-year-old. Initially, a “theoretical one-mile race at the end of the season” was the directive. It has since been changed to 1 1/16 miles on dirt.

Upon his death in 1954, Campbell was referred to by The Thoroughbred Record “as probably the shrewdest handicapper of horses in the history of racing.”

One of Campbell’s most publicized achievements was assigning weights for the 1944 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct. The race resulted in a triple dead heat for win among Brownie, Bossuet, and Wait a Bit. It was only the second triple dead heat for win since the advent of the first reliable photo-finish cameras a decade earlier.

The John B. Campbell Handicap, to be run Feb. 15 at Laurel, was inaugurated at Bowie Race Course in 1954 and for years was one of the nation’s premier races for older horses, attracting stars like Kelso, Gun Bow, and Broad Brush.

2. Jamaica Race Course, located just five miles east of present-day Aqueduct, hosted both Experimental Free Handicap races.

No. 1, first run in 1940, was contested until 1956, when it was discontinued. The six-furlong race struggled throughout its history to attract horses. The connections of the top-weighted horses on the Experimental did not want them to carry their heavy assignments.

Despite this, two Horses of the Year were victorious in the race – Triple Crown winner Assault in 1946 and Hill Prince in 1950.

No. 2 struggled with similar problems. Phalanx was third in the race in 1947 before winning the Belmont Stakes. He had been second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness.

Blue Man won the final No. 2 in 1952 and went on to win the Preakness Stakes.  He was third in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes.

In 1953, the Experimental No. 2 was replaced by the Gotham Stakes (run in two divisions). The first division was won by the remarkable Native Dancer.

3.  When Campbell released his Experimental for 1946, three horses topped the list at 126 pounds – the colts Double Jay and Cosmic Bond and the filly First Flight, to this day the only filly to ever be assigned weight equal to the highweighted male. (For the curious, in 1974, the brilliant Ruffian was assigned only 122 pounds, five fewer than the highweighted Foolish Pleasure.)

Despite making only six starts during the year, all of them sprints on the straightaway Widener course at Belmont Park, First Flight thoroughly impressed more than Campbell.

The eminent New York Herald Tribune writer and racing historian Joe Palmer said of First Flight, “As a 2-year-old, she was the best – colt or filly – of the year, and one of the best of all time.”

In her first start, she took down the Fashion Stakes, equaling the track record for 4 1/2 furlongs (51 seconds flat).

After finishing second to colts in the Juvenile Stakes, she won the Astoria and Matron before beating colts in the rich Futurity Stakes, where she collected $73,350.

4. Of the first four horses assigned 130 pounds or more in the Experimental, all are today enshrined in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.:

◗ Bimelech (130) was an undefeated champion at age 2 in 1939 and repeated as champion the following season.
◗  Alsab (130) was champion at age 2 in 1941 and was again champion at age 3.
◗ Count Fleet (132) is the only horse ever assigned more than 130 on the Experimental. He was champion at age 2 in 1942 and won the Triple Crown at age 3 when he was again voted champion.
◗ Native Dancer (130) was an undefeated champion at age 2 in 1952, champion at age 3, and undefeated champion at 4.

The other two horses each assigned 130 pounds were Bold Lad in 1964 and Arazi in 1991, the latter assignment a real puzzler. Both colts were trounced as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby.

5. Fifteen males were the highweight or co-highweight on the Experimental in the past 10 years. Three went on to win a Triple Crown race:
◗ Street Sense (127) won the Kentucky Derby in 2007.
◗ Lookin At Lucky (126) won the 2010 Preakness Stakes.
◗ Union Rags (126) captured the Belmont Stakes in 2012.