Updated on 09/17/2011 10:01AM

Weight limit can salvage handicaps

Email

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Racing fans were looking forward to a confrontation of the nation's best older horses in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap. Medaglia d'Oro, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall, won a tune-up for the $1 million race impressively, by seven lengths. Congaree had won three stakes in a row, each of them in spectacularly fast time. "It could be a heck of a race," Congaree's trainer, Bob Baffert, said. "You won't see a race like that for a while."

Indeed, fans didn't see it at all. Trainer Bobby Frankel declared that he wouldn't run Medaglia d'Oro because he was unhappy with the weight assignments issued by Santa Anita's racing secretary, Rick Hammerle: Medaglia d'Oro 124, Congaree 124. The horses look evenly matched, so level weights seem fair. And Medaglia d'Oro carried 126 pounds in the Triple Crown series, so 124 was unlikely to crush the half-ton animal.

Yet Frankel's decision was consistent with the usual behavior in handicap races, for trainers often seem more concerned about securing an edge in the weights than in winning a particular race - even one worth $1 million. Created to make races more competitive, handicaps often wind up spoiling the competition.

In a handicap, of course, a racing secretary arbitrarily assigns the weight to be carried by each horse, with the theoretical aim of equalizing everybody's chances. At the very least, the weights are supposed to give lesser horses some shot at beating the favorite. Forego, the great champion of the 1970's, was virtually invincible at level weights, so he frequently had to tote 130 pounds or more in handicaps. In the 1977 Suburban Handicap he carried 138 pounds and lost to Quiet Little Table, who carried 114. That was a handicap worthy of the name. In that era, racing secretaries took seriously the responsibility of assigning the right weights - even at the risk of losing a big-name attraction whose trainer objected to a high burden.

Those days have gone. As tracks large and small vie to attract the sport's stars, no racing secretary wants to chase away a top horse with too realistic a weight assignment - even though the traditional purpose of a handicap was to "bring 'em all together."

"The racing secretary is stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Dave Bailey, who holds that position at Gulfstream Park. "These days there are so many opportunities to race [good horses], and I need to attract these horses, too." Bailey said that if a "very special horse" is in one of the major handicaps at Gulfstream, he will give him a weight between 120 and 122. Harlan's Holiday, regarded as one of the best older horses in the East, won Saturday's Donn Handicap carrying 120.

But such soft weight assignments haven't stopped trainers from whining or maneuvering for a slight advantage. And the racing secretaries have themselves partly to blame. They often assign weights with a knee-jerk reaction: If a horse wins a stakes carrying x pounds, the next time he runs he gets x+1 or x+2. Lou Raffetto Jr., a former racing secretary who is now chief operating officer of Maryland's tracks, said, "A lot of times they don't consider who a horse has been running against. If a good horse beat nobody carrying 123, there is the reaction: 'We've got to raise him [to 124 or 125].' So when trainers look at weights, they're always worrying about what they have to carry next month."

This was Frankel's thinking when he balked at 124 for Medaglia d'Oro. "They're starting him off too high for this early in the year," he told Daily Racing Form. "Where do you go from there if he wins?" Frankel knows that if Medaglia d'Oro were to win Saturday, then win another stakes, his weight assignments would be climbing to the upper-120's, a level where most trainers believe that a pound or two can make or break a horse's chances.

The present system of handicap racing is so flawed and so intellectually dishonest that it needs a radical overhaul. When I am named the czar of racing, this will be my proposal: In every handicap, whether it's a minor race at Beulah Park or a Grade 1 at Santa Anita, the top-weighted horse will carry 126 pounds. A racing secretary would identify the best horse, assign him 126, and scale the rest of the field from there. This would presumably force the secretaries to weight horses according to their merits instead of looking at what they carried in the last start and adjusting up or down. Such a system would allay the fears of top horses' trainers that their weights are going to go into the stratosphere.

But perhaps handicaps are now so debased that they are beyond salvation. Raffetto said, "We've gotten to the point where the whole game is absurd. In Grade 1 races, we'd be better off that we don't handicap them at all." Raffetto suggests making every Grade 1 stakes a weight-for-age race, in which weights are level except that younger horses get an allowance. This is the way major fall stakes, such as the Breeders' Cup Classic, are conducted, and nobody ever complains that those conditions are unfair - a refreshing contrast with the incessant moaning, complaining, and posturing that accompany all handicaps.

© 2003, The Washington Post