If looking silly is going to be the objective -- well, they probably could look even sillier, couldn't they? They could say they're not going to Oaklawn Park because they don't like the corned beef sandwiches, or they could complain the hot springs there are just too, too, too hot. But for purposes of coruscating embarrassment, this will do, too, and these connections will look silly enough: They're bypassing Friday's Apple Blossom Handicap because they can't bear the thought, so sensitive are they, that the Horse of the Year will have to carry 123 pounds.
John Nerud and Dr. Fager were in transit, traveling across the country, from Aqueduct to Hollywood Park, when the trainer learned there was some confusion about the weights for the Californian Stakes. He had been told his great speedster would carry -- what was it, 124 pounds? But Dr. Fager, Nerud now learned, in transit, would have to lug 130 pounds around Hollywood Park.
"It won't make any difference," Nerud said, without hesitation. And he was absolutely right: The weight didn't make any difference. Dr. Fager won by three lengths while carrying 14 pounds more than the runner-up, who happened to be the champion Gamely.
But that's the point. Nerud had it right: Weight rarely makes much difference. If you're worried about the weight a horse carries, you've probably lost already.
But over the weekend, Rick Porter announced that his Horse of the Year, Havre De Grace, would not race Friday at Oaklawn Park because of the weight assignments. On the Fox Hill Farm website, Porter described the weights for the Apple Blossom as "unfair" -- Havre De Grace, 123; Awesome Maria, 122; It's Tricky, 119; Plum Pretty, 117; Tiz Miz Sue, 115.
Unfair? When was the last time the reigning Horse of the Year was assigned 123 pounds in a handicap? In Dubai in 2008, Curlin began his campaign by carrying 132 pounds. And while still on her way to becoming Horse of the Year, Zenyatta started her 2010 campaign by carrying 127 in the Santa Margarita Handicap. But Havre De Grace was given 123 for the Apple Blossom? Porter should have been insulted. And, frankly, if he really thinks 123 pounds is too weighty an assignment, he should just give back the golden Eclipse Award.
Or, to return to the effort to achieve rare silliness, maybe Porter could have explained his bypassing the Apple Blossom by saying he feared Martians. Yes, Martians. When in doubt, always blame the Martians. Porter could have said he feared that Martians, recently spotted in the Hot Springs area, would attempt to kidnap the Horse of the Year. Or, Martians aside, he just could have insisted that Churchill Downs had the best corned beef sandwiches in the universe? But 123 pounds?
Any ridiculous assertion would have been an improvement on this flapdoodle about weight and unfair assignments. Considerable data would even suggest, misleadingly however, that there's a correlation between more weight and better performances.
From all the indignation, you might think the weights were assigned to whippets, not racehorses that in many cases weigh more than 1,100 pounds.
Drosselmeyer gave his best performance of 2011 when he carried 126 pounds in the Breeders' Cup Classic, not when he finished last carrying 116 in the Sword Dancer or when he was far back carrying 117 in the Skip Away. When did Court Vision give his best, and indeed his only good, effort last year? Why, when he carried the most weight, 126 pounds, in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Plum Pretty, Ruler On Ice, Royal Delta, Animal Kingdom, Afleet Again, Amazombie, Musical Romance and, no doubt, many others all gave their best performances of the year with their heaviest impost of the year.
But owners such as Porter continue to moan and whine about weighty assignments in handicaps. It's embarrassing. Trainers whine, too, of course, and perhaps most loudly. From all the indignation, you might think the weights were assigned to whippets, not racehorses that in many cases weigh more than 1,100 pounds. Think about that: A pound to a racehorse would be equivalent, if you were running, to a few quarters in your pocket, and a few pounds would equal a book in your backpack.
Still, reason insists that weight, even though it's not very significant, must at some point negatively impact performance. And it does, but that point varies for each horse, depending on size and strength. Proud Delta, for example, who was the champion mare of 1976, wasn't very big, and weight indeed compromised her effectiveness, with 124 pounds seemingly the breaking point. When she carried less than 124 pounds, she won nearly half her races, 11 of 23; but when she carried 124 or more pounds, she won only once, in eight starts.
But Nerud didn't worry for even an instant about the weight and the unexpected pounds he would find in the Californian because he knew there would be no impact on Dr. Fager, a horse so big and powerful that he made his rivals look, as one scribe put it, Lilliputian. Weight never compromised the great champion. Dr. Fager set a world record under 134 pounds, and in his farewell he won the Vosburgh by six lengths under 139.
Dr. Fager's tolerance for weight was great, which only confirmed his greatness.
But this capacity for carrying weight varies individually, which is why formulas that equate pounds carried with lengths are dubious. It's also why the incessant whining about weight has become such tiresome twaddle.
Havre De Grace ran what was probably the best race of her life when she won last year's Woodward. And in that race, she carried 123 pounds, which just happens to be her assignment in the Apple Blossom.
Except in extremes, weight assignments deserve little attention. And slight differences are virtually meaningless simply because weight is so imprecise.
When I was a youngster going to school, I worked at night as a valet at Jefferson Downs, just outside New Orleans. A valet, as you probably know, assists the trainers in saddling the horses for each race. More important, though, is the valet's work between races, in the jocks' room. The valet takes care of his jockeys' tack, and he tries to ensure that the combination of rider and tack will equal the weight the horse must carry. But the weights are imprecise.
Take as a hypothetical example these two jockeys riding in the same race. The first, a "bug boy," or apprentice, weighs about 100 pounds in his starkness, and he's riding a horse assigned 120 pounds. The other, a journeyman jockey, weighs about 113 pounds on a good day, and he's riding a horse assigned 116.
When the jockeys "weigh out" of the room about 15 minutes before the race, the "bug boy," who's cradling the larger of his two saddles in his arms, along with a pad that contains in its pockets a few thick strips of lead weight, eagerly jumps onto the scales. Under his silks, he's wearing a cotton turtleneck T-shirt.
The needle on the scales starts metronoming back and forth but clearly isn't going to reach 120, and so the valet tosses the saddle towel first and then the over-girth onto the pile. The needle finally comes to a gentle stop, barely touching 120, and so the Clerk of Scales says, "OK." The "bug boy" steps down and runs to the bathroom.
When the journeyman steps onto the scales, he's carrying his smallest saddle and nothing more. The saddle's so small that the jockey holds it in one hand, as if it's a menu. The needle swings wildly on the scales, then slows and finally stops just beyond 116, maybe a half-pound over the assigned weight. The Clerk of Scales scowls, warns the journeyman that he darn well better get it right the next time and then nods a dismissal.
"Thanks, judge," the jock says. He hops down from the scales, immediately runs to the kitchen counter -- every jocks' room has a kitchen -- and quickly downs a soft drink, maybe two, to replace the fluids he lost in the "hot box," or sauna, an hour earlier. If he still has a moment before he must be in the paddock, he might even hurry over to his bench in a corner of the jocks' room and change his footwear, replacing his paper-thin "cheating boots" that weigh no more than a beetle with something more sturdy.
It's all so imprecise, and it can't be otherwise. Some owners and trainers, though, continue to whine that this horse is carrying a pound more than that horse, and that horse has to spot this one two pounds. Owners and trainers complain and whine, in other words, as if the weights their horses carried were not only precise but also meaningful. In truth, they're seldom either.
Larry Jones, who's a terrific trainer and an even better person, gallops many of his own horses, including the reigning Horse of the Year. By his own estimation, he weighs about 178 pounds. But that's fine for galloping, he says, because horses are meant to carry weight.
But apparently the Horse of the Year isn't meant to carry 123 pounds in the Apple Blossom. Sometimes the piffle gets in the way of the twaddle, and this, I suspect, is one of those times.
Porter is a sportsman and deserves credit for continuing to race Havre De Grace this year, even more credit for running her in the Woodward and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Her rare ability and the aggressive campaign that put her talent on display enabled her to win the golden Eclipse Award.
But Horses of the Year don't need to be pampered, even if their owners might. Horses of the Year can carry 123 pounds, as Havre De Grace did in winning the Woodward, and they frequently can carry much, much more. Wouldn't it have been easier, and much more amusing, to complain about the too, too, too hot springs, the corned beef and the Martians?