HALLANDALE BEACH FL, March 20, 2022 – One of racing’s best attributes is its history and traditions. Sometimes, however, tradition gives way to popular trends of the era. One prime example is how many stakes races of the past have been renamed to honor recent greats of the game.
The latest took place yesterday at Oaklawn Park when the former Grade 3 Hot Springs Stakes was renamed the Whitmore in honor of a locally- based Eclipse Champion who won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at age 7, a totally befitting legend for a home state favorite.
Following his Triple Crown campaign in 2016, Whitmore began his four-year-old year sprinting, winning a six-furlong allowances in track record time. Appropriately, he returned to win his first black-type event in a race that now bears his name.
But this is about Saturday’s G3 Essex Handicap.
Yesterday’s Grade 3 Essex could have been named, if only for one day, the Anachronistic Classic, for which eight horses were entered overnight. And here’s what the overnight looked like, listed in post position order:
From the rail: Thomas Shelby, age 6; 7-year-old Title Ready; 6-year-old Warrior’s Charge; 7-year-old Plainsman; 8-year-old Popular Kid; 9-year-old Rated R Superstar; 6-year-old Beau Luminaire and 6-year-old Hanalei’s Houdini, making the average age of the field 6.86 years.
As stated, that’s anachronistic in this age, except, of course, for the near obscene $500,000 purse offered for a Grade 3 title at a modern major racetrack, a prize inflated by an infusion of casino dole. No anachronism, that.
So it was totally appropriate that the oldest member of the field ran them all down in the stretch to win going away. Never mind late runners were having a good day, or that the pace table had been nicely set. Federico Villafranco handed David Cabrera the reins to a loaded equine weapon.
Rated R Superstar, who won the Essex Handicap in 2019, improved his career mark to (59) 11-10-8 and now has amassed $1,589,014 in earnings. In only his second start following a claim by Kenny Caldwell, ‘Superstar’ finished second by a neck in last year’s race.
Handicaps are more enjoyable for fans and bettors alike because it levels the playing field, leading to upsets big and small. A more competitive race attracts straight and vertical-poos bettors and compels horizontal players into more spread scenarios, favored by racetrack bean-counters.
For traditional fans of the sport, handicaps are a measure that helps define greatness, as was the case with Kelso, Forego, Dr. Fager, champion filly sprinters Affectionately and Ta Wee, and a way for claimers to define their class, too, “starter” old-schoolers like Table Hopper, Palenque III.
Racing was more fun back in the day for many and could be again with some nurturing. Must every aspect of thoroughbred racing be devoted to the bottom line or, in the language of financial markets, increasing shareholder value?
No one expects imposts in the mid-130s anymore. High imposts can be tough on the animals. But given today’s “racing fresh” model, there is ample time available for recovery from taxing efforts, especially when good and not necessarily great horses can race for a half-million dollars.
The Essex highweight, runnerup Plainsman, carried a sensible 122 pounds; low-weighted Popular Kid, the second oldest horse at 8, toted 116. The “old man” was in receipt of four pounds from the favored highweight.
Interestingly, the Whitmore Stakes, run under allowance conditions, was won by a highweight too, Bob’s Edge, who lugged 124, spotting seven rivals three pounds while an eighth, show finisher Greeley and Ben, got five pounds from the winner.
While the Essex might have lacked star quality, it did attract eight hard-hitters that averaged eight wins each in their careers. If huge money is what keeps these old boys around, it’s a good investment in reliable “brands” that create lasting relationships with fans and bettors.
There are myriad opportunities for talented young horses to race for seven figures while building potentially lucrative sire resumes and therein lies the rub as The Bard of Avon once wrote. So, if big money helps keep healthy, winning horses around, that’s probably a very good investment to make.