Pricci's Saratoga Diary
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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Handicap Racing in Name Only

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, August 3, 2011--Time was when two of the members of Saturday’s Grade 1 Whitney would be settling their own provincial war. That was many moons past, at a time when the Metropolitan Handicap, a.k.a. the Met Mile, and Suburban Handicap, were the first two legs of the “Handicap Triple Crown,” the Brooklyn Handicap being the last of the triad.

Times have changed, of course. The Met Mile is not the first leg anymore. Indeed, it’s the only one of the triad retaining Grade 1 status. But maybe that’s because schedules are bounced around from year to year and trainers and owners stopped supporting handicaps in the traditional sense.

It’s not surprising that most of today’s owners are not in this game for the sport. Racing, despite its troubles, is still big business, if indeed it was ever anything else. The racetracks and the racing secretaries recognized this a long time ago and began assigning low weights to the high weights, relatively speaking, so that the connections of “the big horse” would stay at home and support the hometown track.

Time was when New York had a mandatory highweight rule. The “best horse” carried 126 pounds; top of the scale for older horses, or more if they rated it. The rule was in vogue for a few years but became so unpopular with horsemen that they began shipping out for more favorable assignments against lesser competition for the same number of greenbacks, sometimes with other “inducements.”

Today’s handicaps are anachronistic, not because they’re outdated and would no longer serve a purpose, but because it mocks the history of handicap racing in this country, a time when weight carriers were the heroes of the sport, not just a challenge for top horses to avoid because it‘s bad for business.

This past weekend, the Ruffian Invitational Handicap was run without a true highweight in the classic sense. The race drew seven entrants and the highweight was Absinthe Minded at 118 pounds.

Absinthe Minded was the fifth betting choice at 10-1. There were three low weights at 114 pounds, including Ask The Moon, the 18-1 upset winner. The race lacked a true standout. In that there is little argument. But a four pound spread among seven horses is hardly a “handicap” at all.

Yes, the filly and mare division on the East Coast for horses not named Harve De Grace and Blind Luck lacks definition, true top class. But a Grade 1 Invitational Handicap at Saratoga with a quarter-million dollar purse should be an exercise that challenges the contestants. Weight assignments have become perfunctory exercises based on the politics, not achievement.

In Saturday’s Whitney, I can’t disagree with Jimmy Bond, the trainer of Grade 1 winning Tizway, who observes that “this is a great bunch of horses, a strong field. This is about as good as it gets.”

Nick Zito sees it the same way, observing that he thought his Grade 1 Carter winner, Morning Line, “would be 4-1, 5-1 or 6-1” on the early line. “It just shows you how deep the field is and how strong it is, obviously for a horse of his magnitude to be 10-1.”

The weights for the Whitney are almost a mirror image of the Ruffian, with a spread of five pounds between highweight G1 Donn winner Giant Oak, the 5-1 second choice. The low weighted Rodman, at 114, was a non threatening second to Tizway in the Met, the winner of a $60,000 overnighter and a G3 winner of the Queens County on the Aqueduct winter track in December, 2009.

The assignments don’t seem equitable, and that’s not disparage racing secretary and handicapper P.J. Campo. It’s not his fault that the modern game is played this way, not just in New York but everywhere.

After Harve De Grace was beaten by Blind Luck by the scantest of noses while in receipt of two pounds in the Delaware Handicap, the filly’s owner, Rick Porter, was quite vocal regarding the weight assignment, saying he will never run in a race in which he has to spot Blind Luck weight again. Never mind that Blind Luck traveled 3,000 miles to face her, taking on a top class rival on her home track.

The purpose of a handicap is to “bring them all together,” a dead heat being the ultimate in handicapping exactitude. The Delaware Handicap was thisclose to a tie, so the weight assignment must have been right on the money. Yet Porter won’t show up the next time he’s asked to spot Blind Luck a few pounds, placing inordinate pressure on the handicapper to ensure “the big horse” runs at his racetrack.

The handicap system doesn’t work because no one wants to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. Do away with it entirely. Make all events weight-for-age, seasonal scaleweight events, or races run under allowance conditions. There’s no longer true respect for Thoroughbred history and tradition, anyway. Why go through the motions?

Written by John Pricci

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