Just when you were about to consign the modern racehorse to the china cabinet containing fragile tchotchke, just when you were about to confuse modern horsemen with pampered children more inclined to grab their ball and go home than risk an affront to their delicate sensibilities, the Wise Dan folks have stepped up. The reigning Horse of the Year is to carry 128 pounds Saturday, or 11-15 pounds more than any of his challengers in the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Curlin successfully carried 132 pounds in Dubai and 128 in the 2008 Stephen Foster; Zenyatta twice won the Vanity Handicap while carrying 129.
That's good for racing. That's significant, and all the more so because it's surprising. No, it's more than surprising: It's stunning, it's rare, it's an ivory-billed woodpecker. Nobody carries 128 pounds these days, or is even asked to.
Except for a few people -- most notably, perhaps, D. Wayne Lukas, who never met a challenge he didn't like, and Bob Baffert, who's willing to travel from one end of the country to the other in pursuit of lucrative rewards -- many horsemen seem bent on avoiding stern competition and serious tests, such as carrying 128 pounds. It's an approach that's pernicious, if not downright ruinous, for horse racing. And so this Firecracker Handicap, where trainer Charles LoPresti and owner Morton Fink will send out Wise Dan, flows upstream, against the current of a destructive trend.
Modern racehorses, as you've probably noticed, rarely carry more than 126 pounds. Modern racing secretaries, as you've also probably noticed, rarely assign horses as much as 126 pounds. Last year, Wise Dan carried 126 only twice, when he won the Shadwell Mile and again when he won the Breeders' Cup Mile. He never has carried more. In fact, none of today's top American horses ever have been asked to carry more. It's as if most racing secretaries have imposed a weight cap on themselves. Game On Dude, Fort Larned, Point of Entry, Flat Out and Ron The Greek -- they've never toted more than a 126-pound impost.
Havre de Grace, the 2011 Horse of the Year, never carried more than 124. Last year, amid a smoking brouhaha, her connections balked at the spread in weight assignments for the Apple Blossom Handicap. Assigned 123 pounds, she didn't race at Oaklawn Park; as it turned out, within two weeks of the Apple Blossom she retired with an ankle injury.
Curlin successfully carried 132 pounds in Dubai and 128 in the 2008 Stephen Foster; Zenyatta twice won the Vanity Handicap while carrying 129. But they were the glaring exceptions, and their ability to carry weight only confirmed, not that it required confirmation, their greatness. But Champions such as Tiznow, Ghostzapper, English Channel, Blame, Saint Liam, Lawyer Ron and Gio Ponti never carried more than 126 pounds. Acclamation didn't have to carry more than 124.
A champion older horse that never carries more than 124 pounds -- the situation would have been inconceivable in the 1960s, when Kelso routinely lugged around 130 or more pounds during his long reign as the Horse of the Year, from 1960 through 1964. Expected to be the great equalizer, carrying weight became, for some, a badge of greatness. In 1963, Kelso won eight consecutive stakes while carrying 124 to 134 pounds. In 1968, Dr. Fager set a world record for a mile despite the 134 pounds he carried, and then he won the Vosburgh with 139. Horses continued to carry significant weight into the 1970s, when the little but great filly Ta Wee carried 142 pounds into the winner's circle after the Interborough Handicap and when Forego raced beneath 130 or more pounds 24 times but still won 13 of those races.
The ability to win in spite of a burden specifically intended to place such an eventuality in question has always distinguished the extraordinary racehorse. Spectacular Bid concluded his career in 1980 with 10 consecutive victories while carrying 126 to 132 pounds. John Henry won with 132, Safely Kept with 131 and Groovy with 132. Cigar won two stakes in 1996 while carrying 130.
Are handicaps outdated, like typewriters, Spice Girls and floppy disks?
And so why can't today's racehorses carry more than 126 pounds? Has modernity shrunk the racehorse? Weakened his back perhaps? Or has sportsmanship waned? Other questions that demand attention aren't so easily answered. What are the effects of this modern development? If racing secretaries aren't going to hand out meaningfully weighty assignments, aren't handicaps a sham? Are they even necessary today?
Because travel could be taxing and troublesome, racetracks once depended on the local horse population to fill all but the most lucrative races. And so handicaps were essential if stakes were to be compelling and competitive.
But equine travel has moved beyond its early problems. Travel has become routine. Gaping weight discrepancies are no longer necessary for a compelling race as long as new and fresh challengers join the cast.
And so are handicaps outdated, like typewriters, Spice Girls and floppy disks? Are they misplaced in modern racing, like those distracting anachronisms that sometimes jump off the big screen -- such as Forrest Gump's Apple investments, or Captain Jack Sparrow's Adidas cap or William Wallace's kilt?
And do handicaps harm the sport by penalizing the best horses for their accomplishments, setting up obstacles that might compromise or discourage, possibly dimming the radiance of even the brightest stars? After all, would you require LeBron James to wear ankle weights or force Miguel Cabrera to swing a heavier bat?
Well, here are some thoughts. First, the weight a horse carries is often imprecise and usually insignificant. It rarely determines and seldom influences the outcome of a race. As John Nerud said when learning that Dr. Fager was given 130 pounds for the Californian, it doesn't make any difference.
Still, weighty distinctions are both traditional and essential. Nobody would bet against Wise Dan Saturday at Churchill Downs if not for the intriguing discrepancies in weight. And few would have entered against him. Trainer Al Stall originally said that to avoid Wise Dan he would pass the race with Lea, a graded stakes winner who has won four of six in his career; but with an 11-pound concession from the champion -- well, suddenly the race and the challenge become inviting, the risk worth taking.
Pat Pope, the racing secretary at Delaware Park and Oaklawn, explained it succinctly: "Nobody would bet on me at equal weights in a race with Usain Bolt." But if Bolt must carry a sofa -- well, then the race becomes somewhat interesting and maybe, just maybe, the underdog has a chance. Or if top sprinters Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay ship in for the race, it becomes interesting. But Pat Pope against Usain Bolt at equal weights -- that's not much of a race, and that's why the occasionally gaping discrepancy in weight is essential to the game.
But if some racing secretaries are going to continue to make a sham of handicaps by handing out feathery assignments and creme de menthe frappes, then they might as well toss the handicap into the old trunk that holds their boom box, bell-bottoms and cabbage patch dolls. Doing that, however, would probably mean that all but the most famous and lucrative of races, stakes, in other words, such as the Firecracker, which offers a purse of $150,000, would become even less competitive and compelling than they are today. The sport still needs handicaps.
A major problem, though, along with waning sportsmanship, is that there are just too many stakes races and too little coordination. Stakes with similar conditions, it seems, are always shadowing each other, bumping into each other, so that if an owner or trainer doesn't like the weight assignment or the competition here, then he can just travel a few miles down the road and run somewhere else. Travel's easy. That's why racing secretaries are so hesitant to put weight on horses and it's why so many stakes have become so bland.
Over a period of nine days, for example, from July 26 through August 3, the Curlin Stakes, Jim Dandy, Ohio Derby, Haskell, Prelude and West Virginia Derby will all be run, along with the Amsterdam, which, of course, is a sprint. They aren't handicaps, but they still reveal the overabundance that compromises quality: In nine days, there are six two-turn stakes restricted to 3-year-olds, and that doesn't include three more stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf, or the stakes out west, the Real Good Deal at Del Mar, or the one in Canada, the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie. And here's a winning pair: On Feb. 10, Gulfstream Park offered the Hurricane Bertie Stakes, and six days later, Laurel offered the Barbara Fritchie: at racetracks with common ownership, two lucrative graded stakes, both sprints, both for fillies and mares. Neither attracted a full field. But together, they would have made one great race.
Anyway, Wise Dan is to carry 128 pounds Saturday in the Firecracker at Churchill Downs. Racing Secretary Ben Huffman had the conviction to give the champion a challenge, and Wise Dan's connections had the courage and, yes, the sportsmanship, to accept it. Racing could use more of this.