02/05/2016 11:48AM

Simon: Some rating holes make Experimental come up light

Benoit & Associates
Songbird's 125-pound rating was one of the assignments the Experimental committee got right.

The Experimental Free Handicap was started in 1933 by the Jockey Club’s legendary handicapper Walter S. Vosburgh as an “experiment” to predict 3-year-old performance based on 2-year-old form. Eight decades later, it sometimes seems like a work still in progress.

The most recent iteration of the Experimental came out on Jan. 28, and while there were no major surprises at the top of the two lists – one a rating of juvenile males, the other of juvenile fillies – the weights in some cases were a bit puzzling to say the least.

This concept, devised as a private exercise/crystal ball to look into the future, took hold fast despite the fact that Vosburgh, a noted racing secretary since 1898, did it for just a year before retiring. Famed handicapper John B. Campbell picked up the mantle in 1935 and the Experimental has been compiled and published every year since. A single handicapper originally performed the task – Campbell was succeeded by Jimmy Kilroe, who in turn was followed by Tommy Trotter, Kenny Noe, and Trotter again – until 1979, when a three-person committee assumed the task. Recently it expanded to a four-person panel, and this year there were five – count ’em five – members of the committee.

In early years, before the process became sanitized by committee, it was a fun exercise. It may not have had much meaning, but it was always eagerly anticipated in the dull, dark days of winter as something to talk about while we waited for major racing to return. (For a time during the 1940s, the Experimental was tied to a couple of early spring races at New York’s Jamaica race course – the Experimental Free Handicap No. 1, at six furlongs, and the Experimental Free Handicap No. 2 at 1 1/16 miles. Both races are long defunct, along with Jamaica.)

Beginning in 1969, at the behest of Jockey Club brass, the handicappers were asked to consider only 2-year-old form, rather than attempt to project 3-year-old form. That’s exactly when the Experimental Free Handicap began to lose significance and interest as an intellectual exercise. But who said racing is supposed to be fun?

In the early days of the Experimental, all juveniles were considered eligible for weighting, even maiden and allowance winners, but as foal crops increased in size and there were simply too many runners to follow, the decision was made to restrict consideration to stakes horses. Nowadays, a juvenile must have competed in a graded or listed stakes in the United States or Canada, with Canadian horses eligible this year for the first time.

Today, the Breeders’ Cup, with its profound impact on the championship landscape, seems to hold extraordinary sway with the committee.

For example, take one of the more puzzling weight assignments for 2015, that of Birchwood’s 119 pounds – which put him just seven below highweighted, undefeated Nyquist and seventh overall among North American juvenile males. Who in the world, you are probably wondering, is Birchwood? What made him one of the very best of his division here in 2015? We also wanted to know, but had to look it up … because frankly, his name did not sound all that familiar.

Birchwood is an Irish-bred who made just one start here, and that a losing effort, finishing third at 18-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf to Hit It a Bomb and Airoforce. Before that, Birchwood had won 3 of 6 starts in England and Ireland, none beyond seven furlongs, and was not considered among the best juveniles abroad.

As most anyone who follows American racing knows, the best juveniles in this country race on dirt and American turf horses are generally a cut below the average European turf horses, which should put Birchwood down a few notches. Add to that the fact that the Experimental is based on a hypothetical race at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, and you have to wonder how Birchwood was rated so highly.

But there’s more.

Birchwood was rated equal to Mohaymen, Mor Spirit, and Exaggerator. Mohaymen won the Grade 2 Remsen; Mor Spirit won the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity; and Exaggerator was a close fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and won the Grade 3, million-dollar Delta Downs Jackpot.

How Mohaymen was weighted at only 119 is as big a mystery, if not bigger, than the assignment awarded Birchwood. In past years, a win in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen, a major year-end race for juveniles, would equate to an almost automatic minimum 123-pound assignment. That aside, Mohaymen was one of three finalists for champion juvenile male, was undefeated in three starts, and recorded the highest Beyer Speed Figure – 95 in the Remsen – of any juvenile male who won a graded North American stakes last year. He developed late, making his debut Sept. 19, after which he clearly proved to astute observers that he was among the very best of his division. Put him in a race with Nyquist at 1 1/16 miles, and handicappers would be all over him given a seven-pound weight allowance from last year’s champion juvenile male.

Second-highest-weighted male, at 124, was Swipe, who never won a graded stakes and won just 1 of 7 starts. His claim to fame was running second to Nyquist four consecutive times in graded stakes to finish his season. Make that five in the Experimental. The handicappers must have really been impressed by his losses, because he was three pounds better than the two co-third-best juveniles, Brody’s Cause and Hit It a Bomb. Brody’s Cause won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and finished third in the BC Juvenile, while Hit It a Bomb won his only start here, the BC Juvenile Turf.

Greenpointcrusader, so impressive in winning the Champagne, was weighted at 120 pounds, penalized for a poor showing in the BC Juvenile, most likely due to working too fast too close to that race. He should have been weighted higher.

What the handicappers did get right was the juvenile fillies list, at least at the top, because Songbird, highweighted at 125 pounds, was the best juvenile seen last year of either gender. Given the three-pound sex allowance for fillies, the rating effectively puts her two pounds higher than Nyquist.

Whether Songbird is actually better than Nyquist, or Mohaymen, remains to be seen.

Three-year-old fillies are not often tested against males, and the odds of her facing them any time soon is not good. But one of the beauties of the Experimental is it creates a forum for discussion during the long days of winter and allows for dreams of what may be ahead.