08/11/2004 11:00PM

Weights add nothing to game

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Want to make an easy five bucks at Saratoga? Defy any horseplayer in town, even among the most avid students of the game, to tell you the weights carried by the horses in the Whitney Handicap last Saturday.

Handicap weights are an anachronistic leftover from a bygone era in racing. No one knows or cares that Roses in May carried 114 while Perfect Drift carried 117 and Bowman's Band 114. No one knows whether it had anything to do with the outcome of the race, and no one bet on or against anyone because of the small differences in the weight assignments.

Most of the sport's leading officials and trainers would like to do away with them - if not entirely, then at least in the mere 38 Grade 1 races a year that are still run under handicap conditions. Why should racing, alone among sports, deny victories and championships to its most talented competitors in the most important races on the calendar?

Even the old-timers who fondly recall days when great horses spotted 20 pounds to a field, and enhanced their reputations in victory, have thrown in the towel on this issue. In a modern era where shipping around for the best spot has replaced running in a prescribed series of races in your back yard, no one weights horses meaningfully anymore. Last week at Saratoga, the Honorable Miss Handicap drew a field of eight, and every filly in the race carried either 113, 115, or 116 pounds. What's the point? The race would not have lost a single entrant or been bet any differently had everyone just carried 116.

The weighting of horses no longer has any integrity in an environment where trainers can always find a lighter spot and no racing secretary is going to risk losing a star attraction by weighting him even 8 or 10 pounds above his opponents. So whether or not you believe in handicap races philosophically, the current system is just a sham and a relic.

The Graded Stakes Committee took on the issue recently, convening a meeting of 16 prominent horsemen and racing officials this past June at Belmont. Two people with racing-office experience expressed concern about possible declines in field size, but the others - trainers, owners, breeders, and track operators - all said it was time to make most or all of the Grade 1's weight-for-age events.

On Thursday morning, the GSC reconvened at Saratoga and decided it was not going to withhold Grade 1 status from handicap races, a move that the committee chairman, Steve Duncker, said would be "too draconian." Instead, the committee will work directly with track operators to encourage them to remove the handicap conditions from Grade 1 events.

"If we can just get each track to start changing the conditions of a few of these races a year, we can get to where we should be pretty soon," Duncker said Thursday.

Two of the attendees at that June meeting were Barry Schwartz, the chief executive of the New York Racing Association, and Jim McAlpine, his counterpart at Magna Entertainment. Their tracks host a majority of the remaining Grade 1 handicaps, and both men are strong believers in eliminating the weights from these events.

"Racing needs stars, and it's just crazy to keep trying to get these horses beat," said Schwartz. "Our racing secretary [Mike Lakow] doesn't think that weight makes any difference anyway. I don't think it's going to hurt these races if they lose one 30-1 shot who didn't belong in it anyway, but even if field size were a real concern, we're only talking about 38 races a year, and if necessary I'd rather run them as betless exhibitions and add another race to the card."

So now it's up to Schwartz and McAlpine to make the changes they say they support and for the Churchill Downs tracks to follow suit.

Azeri vs. Sightseek is the best rivalry in the game right now, but all the stages for them to meet this year in Grade 1 races have been in handicaps. Depending on the outcome of each meeting, the weights get adjusted a few pounds and they never get to run without the lingering question of whether the weight made a difference. Would you have wanted to see Affirmed pick up a pound every time he beat Alydar and have them racing at unequal weights in the Belmont? If not, why do the same to Azeri and Sightseek?

Did it matter that Sightseek carried less than Azeri when she beat her in the Ogden Phipps Handicap, or that Azeri then carried less when she reversed that decision in the Go for Wand Handicap? Probably not. But both races would have been better had they been run at level weights, if only to remove any doubt whatsoever about the validity of either result.