03/08/2013 3:35PM

Steven Crist: Playing field for entry to Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup should be level


Not even the biggest proponents of the occasional handicap race believe that racing’s most important events, such as the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup, should be run at anything except equal weights. So it is increasingly unclear why the key preps for those events continue to be run at unequal weights – especially now that the results of those preps are used to guarantee or deny berths in the main events.

The emergence of the Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup in recent years and the new qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby in effect this year have given fresh urgency to the question of when – if ever – it makes sense to add weight to the equation at the very top of the sport. American racing has been slowly moving away from Grade 1 handicap races, especially in the latter half of the annual racing calendar. The entire topic of weight has receded in the sport and the old rationalization that handicap weights increase wagering interest by supposedly making a heavy favorite more beatable has become irrelevant in an era where there are so many alternatives to win betting.

With horses making so many fewer starts than they once did, and those starts in key preps now tied to admission in the Crown and lucrative entry-fee awards in the Cup, unequal weights in these events are a worse idea than ever.

Even in non-handicap races on the Derby Trail, old allowance conditions once needed to attract full fields remain in place even though they are unnecessary anachronisms. There is no shortage of Derby candidates for the races where points must be earned to secure starting berths, but race conditions remain from a time when it might be hard to scrounge six starters without them.

The first three races in this year’s new “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” all were run at unequal weights, as will many of those on the road ahead. In the Fountain of Youth Feb. 23, where victory was worth 50 Derby-qualifying points and thus an assured Derby berth, one horse (runner-up Violence) had to carry 122 pounds, while his eight opponents carried anywhere from 116 to 118 depending on their previous accomplishments.

Violence finished second by a half-length to Orb, who carried six pounds fewer, and was subsequently found to be injured and was retired, making this case a moot point but still a good example. Why would you want to award a Derby berth on the basis of a result where the winner carried six fewer pounds than the runner-up? How is it possibly fair that Violence might have been denied a Derby berth because he was being punished for having won a Grade 1 race (the CashCall Futurity) before running in the Fountain of Youth?

The same day, Ive Struck A Nerve upset the Risen Star to earn 50 Derby-qualifying points while carrying 116 pounds – the same impost as 9 of his 11 opponents but four fewer than top-weighted Oxbow, who ran fourth. Those unequal assignments were the result of gobbledygook conditions for the Risen Star, which called for a starting point of 122 pounds with “Non-winners of a Grade I or II stakes allowed 2 lbs.; a sweepstakes at a mile or over allowed 4 lbs., $27,000 twice at a mile or over, allowed 6 lbs.”

In the third KDCS race, the Gotham March 3, Vyjack and Overanalyze had to carry 123 pounds, 5 to 7 more than their nine opponents, and finished 1st and 5th, respectively. Obviously the weight made no difference to the winner, but what if Overanalyze misses the Derby cut because he might have finished a place or two higher with seven fewer pounds (punishment for winning the Remsen) on his back?

There’s no guarantee that he would have, or that the results of the Fountain of Youth or Risen Star would have been any different had they been run at level weights – but why even raise the question and tilt the field?

It is an even more glaring issue with the Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In races, where the issue is not merely additional points for qualifying but the payment of the winner’s substantial Breeders’ Cup entry fee and travel expenses. Why should such a package be given to a horse who wins a handicap race by a nose over a superior rival who might have carried 10 pounds more?

There are a thousand ways to lose a horse race and neither life nor racing are always fair, but there is no good reason to introduce unfairness into the process when it no longer serves any useful purpose.