Updated on 09/17/2011 9:48PM

Weights just a burden to Grade 1's

Email

NEW YORK - Quickly now, without looking it up, what weights were carried by the first three finishers in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont last Saturday? If that history is too ancient, how about the assignments for this Saturday's Hollywood Gold Cup?

If you answered honestly that you don't know or care, there's another obvious question to face: Why does racing continue the charade of handicap racing in Grade 1 events that are supposed to determine the sport's very best horses?

For the record, Offlee Wild carried 116 pounds to victory in the Suburban, one more than 25-1 Tap Day, who finished second, a neck in front of the 118-pound topweight, Pollard's Vision. The entire spread in the eight-horse field was all of five pounds, from 118 down to the two trailers in the field, who carried 113 pounds each.

The Hollywood Gold Cup features a similarly small and meaningless spread, from Lava Man's 118 to Deputy Lad's 112. Saturday's next richest race, the Smile Sprint Handicap at Calder, has a seven-pound range, from 118 down to 111.

Racing is mindlessly maintaining an illogical and anachronistic tradition by going through the motions of weighting these horses. Does anyone actually believe that the five-pound spread in the Suburban made the race more interesting or competitive? Did it attract a single additional starter? Did it "bring the field together," as proponents of handicaps like to say, or did it have no effect at all on the 38 1/2-length margin separating the first- and last-place finishers?

The whole exercise is a sham. One of the few things that handicappers of different philosophies seem to agree on is that if weight makes any difference at all, the proper conversion rate is that five pounds equals a length. This was the result of an exhaustive computer study undertaken by Andrew Beyer a decade ago, and is the formula that has been independently used for even longer by both the Ragozin and Thoro-Graph sheets, which adjust their speed ratings accordingly.

So to assign 5-2 favorite Pollard's Vision 118 pounds and 73-1 shot Runaway Russy 113 pounds implies that there is only one length of difference between them in ability and likely performance - simply an absurd proposition. In the Smile, graded-stakes winner Don Six carries seven pounds more than Hitthegroundrunnin, an overmatched allowance horse from Tampa. Are those seven pounds supposed to equalize the at least 10-length difference between them?

Putting aside the core issue of why racing persists in trying to beat the best horses in top-class races through weight, the handicap system usually can't even accomplish that misbegotten goal as a practical matter. Racing secretaries forced to weight these races are in an impossible position. If they made meaningfully large spreads that might really bring the field together, the topweights would simply pass the race. So we're left with a less than half-hearted attempt to replicate an unnecessary and fundamentally wrong system from yesteryear.

There are only 39 Grade 1 handicaps left on the American racing calendar. The New York Racing Association is seriously considering converting its 15 to weight-for-age status as early as next year, a change that can't come too soon.

Good riddance to world rankings

The Breeders' Cup undertook a commendable abandonment of weighting systems Thursday when it announced that it is dropping its widely criticized World Thoroughbred Rankings system in favor of a new weekly poll by an international panel of handicappers.

The previous rankings, produced by a group of racing officials, were a misleading and doomed attempt to assign comparable weights to candidates for different Cup races. Focusing almost exclusively on Grade 1 and Group 1 results and relying disproportionately on the provincial opinions of Europeans, the rankings routinely produced laughable leaderboards with little relation to reality - Moon Ballad was rated a much better dirt horse than Mineshaft, House Party a better sprinter than Congaree.

The new 11-member panel, composed entirely of professional oddsmakers, handicappers, and journalists (including Daily Racing Form's Brad Free and Mike Watchmaker), will issue a weekly list of the top 10 contenders for each Cup race, ranked in order of preference but not weighted.

The substitution of professional pricemakers for institutional officials making nationalistic statements ensures more realistic assessments - an idea that would have been wise to follow in recent weeks amid the preposterous notion that New York City ever had a realistic chance to be named the host of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

While local politicians insisted that the city had something close to a 50-50 chance in a race against London, Paris, Madrid, and Moscow, the oddsmakers had it right all along: On the betting exchanges, the entry of London (the eventual winner) and Paris (the runner-up) was a combined 1-10 shot, while New York was 30-1 and ran to its odds, finishing a bad fourth of five. Even a seven-pound swing in the weights wouldn't have helped.