11/23/2007 1:00AM

Time has passed for weights in stakes

EmailNEW YORK - The 17 graded stakes races being run over this four-day holiday weekend make up a strong and interesting sort of national racing festival four weeks after the Breeders' Cup. They also illustrate how the continued use of weight assignments in stakes racing is an inconsistent and outdated mess that adds nothing to highest level of the sport except confusion while potentially damaging the integrity of the results.

Almost every weekend race is either a handicap or had conditions calling for horses to carry additional weight based on recent accomplishments. Beyond the threshold question of why we're routinely penalizing the better horses in our top races at all, the assignments ranged from the meaningless to the punitive. A few examples:

* In Thursday's Falls City Handicap at Churchill, there was no reason for Panty Raid to be conceding 4 to 8 pounds to a field on which she had no superior credentials on dirt. She may well have been a bet-against even at level weights, but she should not have been penalized for Grade 1 victories on grass and Polytrack.

* Thursday's Hollywood Prevue Stakes featured a small spread of 116 to 120 pounds among the 11 juveniles. The highweight? Run Brother Ron, penalized four pounds for winning two so-called stakes races at county fairs. Dismissed at 55-1, he finished 11th. Why make him carry more weight against clearly superior horses?

* In Friday's Grade 1 Citation Handicap, Silent Name was topweighted at all of 117 pounds, and seven of his eight opponents were to carry either 114 or 115. Why even bother?

* Saturday's De Francis Dash at Laurel, one of the few chances for pure sprinters to win a Grade 1 race, should have been run at level weights. Instead, favorites Talent Search and Benny the Bull, coming off a respective third and fourth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Sprint, were getting four pounds from the Grade 2 winners High Finance, Saint Anddan, and Will He Shine - none of them considered good enough to contest the BC Sprint.

* Saturday's Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs were to be properly run under weight-for-age conditions, but the similar Remsen and Demoiselle at Aqueduct forced the more accomplished juveniles to concede 4 to 6 pounds to the others. Especially with Kentucky Derby berths based on graded-stakes earnings at stake, why are we trying to beat the most promising classic candidates?

The three rationales given by the few remaining defenders of handicap weights in stakes racing simply do not hold water.

There is no evidence whatsoever to support the idea that handicaps increase wagering interest or volume. Perhaps in a pre-exotics era there was some case that level-weight racing produced "too many" heavy favorites, but not in a game where intrarace and multirace wagers account for 70 percent of the handle.

The idea that we're improving the stamina of the breed by rewarding horses who carry daunting imposts is simply laughable. The competition among tracks to attract marquee horses has led to small spreads and light imposts. Most horses carry less weight in handicap stakes than they would under standard weight-for-age conditions.

Nor is there any proof that these weights create bigger fields. Other than hustling the occasional hopeless 30-1 shot into a race, today's mild weight spreads rarely scare off candidates in search of black type.

Racing is unique in the world of sports for penalizing its most accomplished competitors. No one makes the fastest human runners wear ankle weights, moves back the three-point line for LeBron James alone, or adds five yards to the New England Patriots' field-goal attempts. Racing's continuing to do the equivalent is a function solely of inertia. There is no intellectually valid argument for continuing this anachronism, and no strong support for the practice. It seems that this is a part of the job that racing secretaries enjoy, but when pressed they really can't defend the practice.

A few years ago, representatives of the American Graded Stakes Committee convened a meeting at Belmont Park to discuss eliminating handicap conditions at least from Grade 1 races. Every one of the powerful breeders, owners, and trainers in the room agreed it was time for a change and supported the idea, yet there has been virtually no progress on the issue since then.

Weight in racing is the equivalent of holiday fruitcake: Nobody really likes it or wants it, but for some reason it appears on the table every year for reasons no one can defend or even remember. It's well past time to get rid of it.