07/06/2001 12:00AM

The trouble with handicaps


In last month's National Basket-ball Association finals, the Los Angeles Lakers were heavily, heavily favored to win the series, offering odds somewhere between 1-10 and

1-20, depending on where you did your shopping.

Thoroughbred racing's clever solution to this disparity would have been either to put ankle weights and cast-iron sneakers on Shaq, Kobe, and the rest of the Lakers, or to allow the underdog Philadelphia 76ers to shoot at baskets just five feet off the ground.

Will someone please explain why this would be any more stupid than handicap racing?

The primitive exercise of forcing the better horses to carry more weight in their saddles in so many of the sport's richest races is just plain wrong. The sooner that handicap races are eliminated from the game, the better. They are detrimental to the sport and no longer even serve the purpose for which they were designed.

No other sport is set up to diminish the chances of the worthiest contestant. Tiger Woods does not have to tee off 20 yards behind the other golfers, baseball's All-Stars don't have to use smaller bats, and the returning Super Bowl winners aren't limited to three downs. The common thread here is that the playing fields are level, not tilted against the best players. This is not only the right thing to do but also the popular one. Fans don't want to see the best player or team beaten unfairly.

In handicap racing, we do just the opposite. The better a horse performs, the more we try to keep him from continuing to win. It's as if some scientific curiosity about weight-carrying ability is more important than the game itself. Then we turn around and try to justify this by saying that this is some sort of true test of quality in a horse, when it is nothing of the kind. It's an impediment that sometimes may matter and sometimes may not.

Hasn't this boring, pointless laboratory experiment gone on long enough? Racehorses are not being selectively bred to carry fat cavalry soldiers into battle. What is the charm or importance of carrying lead in your saddle? You might as well ask the best horse to jump through a ring of fire nearing the finish line.

Whatever business motive may once have existed for handicap weights is gone. Perhaps you could argue that in olden times when grandpappy rode the streetcar out to the old horse park, he didn't want to bet on or against a 1-5 shot in the big race. Putting 130 pounds on said horse might make him 4-5 and grandpappy might be more likely to wager one way or the other.

Fortunately, his grandchildren live in a racing world of plentiful options where a 1-5 shot is no barrier to action. Think the best horse is unbeatable at level weights and don't like a 20 percent return on your investment? Then single him in the late double, pick three, pick four, or pick six. Figure out who's going to run second, third, and fourth and punch a cold exacta or spread out in the trifecta and superfecta. Win betting is less than a quarter of the handle these days, so why should we continue to compromise the sport to solve a problem that no longer exists?

Nor is there any evidence that handicap weights increase field size. For every 30-1 shot you pick up with a 109-pound assignment, you lose a topweight who ships out of town to an easier spot.

At the very least, handicap conditions should be phased out of all races at the top of the sport as soon as possible. No one would dream of compromising the Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup with handicap weights, so why do it in dozens of other rich Grade 1 events? Putting aside the unfairness of determining the outcome of individual races by weight, it is spectacularly wrong that a horse would be denied a divisional championship or a starting berth in a Breeders' Cup race because he was beaten by weight in one of the sport's big handicap races.

This issue would evaporate quickly if the Graded Stakes Committee announced it would no longer award Grade 1 status to any handicap race beginning in 2003. Since that is unlikely to happen, it is up to the officials at individual tracks to start changing the conditions of their biggest handicaps.

A delightful side benefit to the end of big handicap races would be the simultaneous cessation of the tiresome ritual of trainers complaining about the weights their horses have been assigned. Buddy Delp didn't like the 122 on Include in the Suburban Handicap last weekend and opined his horse should have gotten more than a pound from Albert the Great. Why should a horse vying to be named the best of his age be getting anything? Why should the inferior horse be given an even better chance of registering an unjust triumph? Let them both carry 126 and may the better horse win.