07/22/2011 4:49PM

Much ado about two pounds of extra weight


In an effort to cultivate a new and expanded wave of fans, horse racing has been pretty good about choosing the laundry it decides to wash in public.

Every sports follower understands the significance of drugs, their use, abuse, and need for regulation. The fact that racing has contributed its share of stories should not be cause for alarm. Fans accept the fact that the refs and the umps will blow a few calls. Same goes for racing stewards. And true fans feel the pain of competitive injuries, especially when suffered by animals, or offensive linemen. If any of these issues scare away a potential fan, from horse racing or any other major sport, then they might as well watch tennis.

Every once in a while, though, horse racing lets leak into its limited media coverage a remnant from its archaic origins, offering up an issue so weirdly off-key that the audience wonders if the rest of the game should be taken seriously at all.

In the most recent case, the issue was two pounds. More specifically, the two pounds Havre de Grace carried in the Delaware Handicap that Blind Luck did not. Both before the race and, with more volume, immediately afterwards, after Blind Luck beat her rival by a nose, there was noise from the Havre de Grace camp that they wuz robbed, and that the two pounds made all the difference in the world in causing their wonderful filly to lose the prestigious race.

Perhaps it’s just as well the Delaware Handicap was one of those great races that took place in a virtual media blackout. There was no TV other than the gambling channels, and then only by remote coverage, so there was no one other than local print and television to collect the comments of owner Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones, which have spread mostly through forms of social media.

In fairness, Porter and Jones were simply channeling some of racing’s greatest frustrations. As Blind Luck’s trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, noted, “They are very competitive people. I would have been surprised if they hadn’t complained.”

Two pounds, though, sounds a little trifling, hardly grounds upon which to lay full blame for a bitter loss. This wasn’t exactly Seabiscuit giving Stagehand 30 pounds and losing the Santa Anita Handicap by a nose, or Discovery carrying 138 and losing the Massachusetts Handicap by a neck and a nose to Top Row (116) and Whopper (108), or Kelso giving Iron Peg 15 pounds and losing the Suburban Handicap by a head.

Time after time, Martha Gerry and her trainers, Sherrill Ward and Frank Whiteley accepted crushing weights on Forego. Win or lose, they kept coming back for more. I once asked Mrs. Gerry about those weights. She called it “an honor.” I had no follow-up question.

Gone forever are the Looney Tunes days of one horse carrying an anvil, or a washing machine, in order to bring him back to the rest of the field. Weighting the best horses to give others a chance is not strictly an American institution – check out what they did to Phar Lap and others Down Under – but in the U.S. the mentality persists that weights, even in the smallest amounts, can make all the difference in the world.

This makes no sense, especially given the fact that the largest portion of weight carried by a racehorse is live jockey weight. If both Garrett Gomez and Ramon Dominguez, men of comparable size, weighed 116 pounds stripped on the day of the Delaware Handicap, then they were 95 and 93.5 percent of the 122 and 124 pounds their fillies carried. It stands to reason that the physically active, decision-making element making up more than 90 percent of a payload will have a greater impact than a minor difference in that small proportion of inert, stable cargo – the saddle and weight pads. But then, I took basket weaving instead of physics.

At some point in the last 20 years, the manipulation of handicap weights has become perverted. Now, racing secretaries freely admit they hold a finger to the wind before risking the loss of a marquee horse, just because of 32 ounces or so. They are shedding handicap races like dead skin, content to write weight conditions determined by money won, distances, dates, and performance in graded races. And when a handicap comes around, the weights are timid, the spreads undemanding.

The people behind the unbeaten filly Sarah’s Secret had no trouble accepting her 120-pound top weight assignment for the San Clemente Handicap at Del Mar on Sunday. In her first start she was assigned 118 pounds in a maiden win. In her second, she was assigned 122 in a first-level allowance. In her third race she was back to 118 in a second-level allowance, and in her most recent win she was listed at 115 pounds in the Honeymoon Handicap, five less than the 120-pound topweights, Cambina and Bonita Star.

Cambina finished in a dead heat for the win in the American Oaks last weekend – a great way to thin out the competition – while Bonita Star runs in the San Clemente and is assigned 116 pounds. This represents a nine-pound shift compared to Sarah’s Secret, who beat Bonita Star in the Honeymoon by 3 3/4 lengths. Pray that it does not come down to a close one between these two, otherwise Facebook could be on fire.