Updated on 09/17/2011 9:59AM

Let's hear it for Grade 1 handicaps


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Trainer Bobby Frankel's decision this week to keep Medaglia d'Oro out of the Santa Anita Handicap because of a 124-pound weight assignment renewed a hot debate - should handicaps in Grade 1 races be eliminated?

One could argue that making these races weight-for-age would solve the problem of horses dropping out of big races because of hefty assignments. Then marquee matchups like Congaree vs. Medaglia d'Oro would take place with more regularity.

What horseplayer wouldn't want to see that? I wouldn't - under those terms.

Handicaps are part of the rich history of Thoroughbred racing, part of our tradition. To do away with handicaps in Grade 1 races would do a disservice to the great horses of the past who carried the burden of high weight.

I'm not one of these horseplayers who can rattle off the top weights that all the legendary horses carried all the way back to the early 1900's. I know people who can, however. The issue is important to them - just as baseball history is so vital to those who follow that sport.

This isn't just about history, though. I've never been one to do something simply because it's the way things have always been done. There need to be better reasons. In the case of handicaps in Grade 1 races, there are.

Already, we see too many short fields in important dirt stakes. Making a race like the Santa Anita Handicap weight-for-age would likely result in smaller fields, because trainers don't want to run a longshot without concessions from the favorites.

Quite often when there is an upset in a big handicap race, it was the weight break that was the deciding factor that encouraged the trainer to run his horse.

Those that favor weight-for-age races understandably argue that this rewards mediocrity, giving lesser horses an unfair advantage while penalizing the true Grade 1 horses.

I believe that is a valid argument to some extent. No one wants to see a questionable Grade 1 winner go to stud for a big price merely because he won a handicap at 114 lbs.

But people tend to remember these things - just as they remember that Brahms won the 2000 Hollywood Derby because of the disqualification of Designed for Luck, who fouled a distant finisher.

People remember even more when a horse carries high weight and performs admirably.

Seabiscuit lost the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap, but won the respect of the racing public by spotting 30 pounds to victorious Stagehand. Three years later, he won the Big Cap carrying 130 pounds.

Ancient history, you say? Maybe so. But that history will become part of a Hollywood movie this year.

With or without Medaglia d'Oro, the Santa Anita Handicap will be a great race. Certainly, it would be greater if he raced in it, but such is the disappointment of racing.

There is a commonly held belief that there is no progress without change. But changing the history of our game to eliminate handicaps from Grade 1 races would simply be a bad bet.