07/25/2002 11:00PM

New York weight rule is out of line

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It's hard to find much to complain about during opening week at Saratoga. The racing's strong, the mutuel pools are fat and soft, the living is easy, fish are jumping, and the cotton is high. There's just this little matter of three pounds to quibble about.

Three pounds is the allowance that New York-breds are getting if they venture outside their restricted ranks and take on open company. It is consolation prize of sorts as the New York Racing Association quite rightly decided to raise open-company purses at the Saratoga meeting without giving a corresponding bump to the races restricted to statebreds.

For the first time at a Saratoga meet, the conditions header for every non-restricted race except the stakes has carried the parenthetical kicker, "(Registered New York Breds allowed 3 lbs.)" In Friday's first race, for veteran, motley $25,000 older male claimers, Hearts at Risk carried 117 pounds, while most of the same horses he had been facing at equal weights for the last two years carried 120. At the age of 6, Hearts at Risk had suddenly gotten a discount, not for being a senior citizen but as a sort of belated apology for his birthplace.

As pure political horse-trading, the three-pound solution may have been a shrewd one, a goofy and largely irrelevant concession given in order to establish two far more important precedents: Statebred purses do not have to match unrestricted ones, nor does NYRA have to offer the same purses for moderate horses at Aqueduct in February that it does for the world-class horseflesh at Saratoga.

Having said that, the three-pound concession in and of itself is a terrible idea, a dangerous precedent, and a peculiar message to be sending the world about New York-breds.

The whole idea of using weight to handicap or benefit horses of the same age and sex is one of racing's lingering problems. As has been argued before in this space, the practice is a painful anachronism that should and probably eventually will be eliminated from the game. In a prior epoch when equine breeds needed improvement to haul logs or heavy artillery, weight-carrying may have been a relevant goal. Now it's just a silly distraction that is parimutuelly unnecessary in the multiple-betting era and not something that helps fill fields anymore.

At the highest levels of the game, it is counterintuitive and leaves racing as the only sport that sabotages its best performers. No one thinks Tiger Woods should tee off 20 yards behind his competitors (except maybe his competitors.). Most enlightened racing secretaries at major tracks say they look forward to a day when all major races are run at weight-for-age rather than handicap conditions.

The idea of using weight to aid horses of a particular parentage and birthplace is a new and perverse twist on an already perverse idea. It's one thing to give statebreds their own maiden, allowance, and stakes races as an incentive to build a local breeding program. It's also entirely proper to set aside government-mandated breeding-fund money to pay premiums to statebreds who win in open company. But saying that they will receive a weight allowance when they face horses born in other states brands them as inferior while introducing a distasteful element of provincial favoritism to a game that's supposed to be played on a level field.

While many handicappers including this one will never factor three pounds into their calculations, in theory a three-pound weight difference is supposed to move a horse up somewhere between a half-length and a length. So what an allowance for all New York-breds in open races effectively does is create a separate finish line for statebreds a few feet in front of the finish line that everyone else has to use.

It's an unwelcome insertion of public policy into the rules of a sport. If at some point in the future it is decided that the sport needs more participants of some other constituency - say, owners from other countries, or stallions from a particular genetic line - will these horses get a weight allowance? Should there be a different finish line for horses bred by family farmers or ridden by older jockeys?

And what if other states follow suit? How will a New York owner who winters his horses in Florida like it if all the Florida-breds get a three-pound break at Gulfstream next winter? They will like it even less if they run at Keeneland or Churchill and every Kentucky-bred gets to carry less weight.

Florida and Kentucky won't do that because they correctly believe their horses don't need unfair advantages and should be able to hold their own on even terms with anyone. It's too bad that New York is instead sending the message that horses bred in the Empire State cannot succeed without a head start.