05/05/2004 11:00PM

Why make the best worse?

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NEW YORK - Could someone please explain why it was a good thing for Azeri to carry 11 pounds more than the filly who beat her by a head in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Kentucky Derby undercard?

This is not a knock on the spread between Azeri and the victorious Mayo on the Side. If we're going to continue to play this silly game of putting lead weights in the saddles of better horses, 125 and 114 were in keeping with practice and tradition. It's the entire practice and tradition of handicap weights, at least in the Grade 1 races that are supposed to showcase the stars of the sport and determine champions, that needs to be changed.

Carl Nafzger, who trains Mayo on the Side, was happy to take the Grade 1 and the money and is not volunteering to give it back. Even in victory, though, he graciously decried the current system.

"Grade 1's should not be handicaps, they should be equal weights," he told Daily Racing Form's David Grening. "A filly like Azeri deserves to be treated better, as one of our heroes, instead of giving 11 pounds away to a very talented filly. I'm not apologetic, I'm just saying it's not right. You want to see heroes in this business, leave the Grade 1's alone."

There are no handicap weights in the Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup races. Of course not - we want to see who the best horse really is. So why aren't the sport's other 89 most important races all worthy of the same clarity and fairness? Weights don't attract bigger fields (only four ran in the Humana), they are unnecessary to stimulate betting in an era of exotic and multiple wagering, and they add needless confusion to an already complex and ambiguous game.

If a few races need to remain handicaps because of a particular tradition, fine. Maybe Santa Anita can't have a Big 'Cap without the 'cap, and the Fall Highweight is a mildly interesting experiment in extremes. But the entire schedule of the sport's premier events is dominated by races that would be better run at level weights. There have been 10 Grade 1 races for older horses so far this year, and eight of them have been handicaps.

In specialty divisions, there are so few Grade 1's that the best horses never get a chance to prove themselves without a handicap burden. There is no Breeders' Cup race for older sprinting fillies and mares, and the division gets just three Grade 1 races all year - the Santa Monica at Santa Anita, the Humana, and the Ballerina at Saratoga. All three are handicaps.

No other sport tries to make its best players lose its biggest events. If anything, it gives them preferred treatment, such as home-court advantage in playoffs. Racing should never do that. No one is in favor of giving the top earners first crack at picking post positions for the Derby.

It's long past time, however, to stop trying to tilt things the other way. There were a dozen legitimate reasons why Azeri lost the Humana - she didn't fire her best shot and she did not exactly get a Hall of Fame ride while checking twice and being boxed in early. Still, at level weights, she might well have overcome all that, and the sterling record of a champion would have been properly enhanced instead of unfairly tarnished.

Track operators and racing secretaries seem to agree that it's time for a change whenever the issue is raised, but nobody does anything about it. Is there some secret society of weight enthusiasts insisting that this continue? Why isn't Churchill Downs, Magna, or the New York Racing Association willing to start phasing out these anachronisms?

Nafzger's candid and sportsmanlike comments should be a wakeup call to an industry that is belatedly fixing some of its other problems but often treads too fearfully in addressing the outdated aspects of racing itself.

Three days after the Derby, Churchill Downs commendably announced changes to its pick-three rules, following the advice of the NTRA Players' Panel to provide refunds or consolation payoffs for scratches and to award different payoffs in the case of dead heats. Churchill could stay on a good-for-the-game roll by deciding that next year's Humana will be run at level weights, just like the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.