MARCH 16, 2013
The Handicap Conundrum
by Vance Hanson
While there are far more pressing issues affecting the industry and its
perception with the general public, the issue of weight, particularly the amount
carried by the stars of the sport, continues to rile both the sport’s
traditionalists and its self-anointed progressives.
On one side of the divide are the traditionalists, who lament not seeing
future Hall of Famers courageously overcome heavy imposts on a routine basis
like the Kelsos and Foregos of yore. They regret the decline in prestige of many
of the sport’s most historic races, and despise the petty politicking of
horsemen to get an additional pound or two off already miniscule weight
The progressives, which include a few vocal members of the fourth estate who
use the topic as convenient fodder for a column or two per year, see handicaps
as inherently unfair — a crude way to punish success in our enlightened,
egalitarian and meritocratic world. They view the concept as unexplainable to
the great masses of would-be racing fans, and unjustifiable from a pari-mutuel
perspective as exotic wagering long ago usurped the Win pool in popularity.
As a general proposition, we tend to fall in the traditionalist camp on this
issue. While we don’t expect the vast majority of horsemen to think like John
Nerud, who felt it a badge of honor that Dr. Fager was often assigned the
kitchen sink as ‘dead’ weight, the routine use of star horses as bargaining
chips to further reduce historically-low weight assignments or spreads has made
a mockery of the system and is generally unsportsmanlike.
What the progressives tend to forget is that handicaps are racing’s way of
achieving parity, and other sports have mechanisms for achieving the same goal. Rule revisions and salary caps
are but two examples of how some sports leagues subtly try to even the playing
The charge that handicaps are a repellent to attracting new fans and
sustaining their interest is completely unfounded. If those still in existence
can have such a profound impact on the popularity of the sport, then perhaps the
focus should be getting these races on network television rather than worrying
about what conditions they’re run under.
Most traditionalists would agree that the progressive forces have largely
succeeded in their desire to see the number of major handicaps reduced. Racing
secretaries, no longer wanting to be brow-beaten by horsemen and fearing the
loss of marquee stakes performers, have adjusted the conditions of many
traditional handicaps and turned them into allowance stakes.
The irony is that these allowance stakes are virtually handicaps themselves
and, depending how the conditions are written, have resulted in truly obscene
weight assignments. Can you believe champions Blind Luck and Havre de Grace each
carried 115 pounds in the 2011 Azeri Stakes, four pounds less than
Absinthe Minded and Spacy Tracy?
Whether one is pro-handicap or anti-handicap, the bottom line is that with or
without them the system of assigning weight in our major races remains broken,
and a major re-thinking of the issue is in order. What follows are two
proposals: one to use if we are to keep the parity-achieving mechanism of
handicaps, and the other if handicaps are to be eliminated altogether.
In a Handicap world
“Anachronistic” has been a popular adjective used to describe the concept of
handicaps, and the sport has shaken off some of its more anachronistic features
over time. For example, it was formerly common for entries to be drawn as little
as 24 hours out for a typical race card. That long ago went the way of the dodo,
and even now tracks that draw 48 hours out are increasingly viewed by
horseplayers as hopeless dead-enders.
With the 72-hour draw (or later) having become the industry standard, it’s
now time to re-evaluate when weights should be assigned in handicap stakes. The
traditional way of doing business is for the racing secretary to make fixed
weight assignments, usually a week or two out from race day, based on who is
nominated to the stakes rather than who actually shows up in the entries. Thus,
Game On Dude could theoretically be assigned 126 pounds and Richard’s Kid 120
against an otherwise ordinary group of nominees, but Richard’s Kid would still
only carry 120 even if he winds up being the highest weighted horse who actually
Weight assignments and spreads that take into account stakes nominees that
don’t even leave the barn are no longer acceptable. Weights should instead be
assigned after the composition of the field is determined, with a minimum top
weight of 126 (in a field of older males) assigned to the horse or horses
perceived to be most deserving by the racing secretary. If racing secretaries
want to cap the top weight in any handicap stakes at 126 pounds, it’s their
option. The normal three-to-five pound sex allowance can lower the minimum top
weight in handicaps restricted to fillies and mares.
The assigning of weights should take mere minutes for a racing secretary, and
the weights can be deemed “adjustable” up until scratch time. The betting public
can be easily notified through various mediums of any revisions after scratch
time has occurred.
Horsemen who watch their stable star win by open lengths carrying 126 pounds
while conceding a lot of weight should not necessarily fear a similar weight
assignment or larger weight spread the next time. If the field they next race
against is more competitive and balanced, said stable star might not have to
concede as much weight or even be the top weight at all.
There will always an arbitrary element to the assigning of handicap weights,
but this proposal would at least reduce the spectacle of horsemen acting
horrified that their Eclipse Award-worthy animal is being asked to shoulder 126
pounds more than once a year.
In a Non-Handicap World
The traditionalist in me would hate to see the handicap go extinct, but the
disappointment would be partially tempered if the current Jockey Club Scale of
Weights were applied universally for all graded stakes. Below is the
relevant sections of the current scale:
(a) In races of intermediate lengths, the weights
for the shorter distance are carried.
(b) In races exclusively for three-year-olds or
four-year-olds, the weight is 126 pounds, and in races exclusively for
two-year-olds, it is 122 pounds.
(c) The scale of weights is less by the
following: for fillies two-years-old, 3 pounds; for mares three-year-olds and
upward, 5 pounds before September 1, and 3 pounds thereafter.
The four most notable races run in the United
States each year are the three classics — Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and
Belmont Stakes — and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. All are contested under scale
weights, as are a number of other races of great significance. For those who
view handicaps as inherently unfair to the best horses, we see no reason why
they should oppose the adoption of scale-weight conditions for every graded
stakes in America.
Having heard virtually no complaints over the
years with asking three-year-old males to carry 126 pounds in all three
classics, or for older horses to carry the same weight in various Breeders’ Cup
races at a mile or over, including the Classic, then there really should not be
much of an uproar with that assignment being the standard year round if you want
to participate at the highest levels. The actual scale weight is a tad higher in
races under one mile, but far from punishing and not any higher than what
sprinters in other countries are asked to carry in weight-for-age races.
Unsuccessful at enforcing their clout with
respect to reducing the use of medication in races they assign grades to, the
American Graded Stakes Committee might have an easier time influencing the
implementation of either proposal in order for races to retain their graded
status. Their adoption would be a step in the right direction and an improvement
over the broken system of assigning weights that presently exists.