The concept of handicap races, as I understand it, is to create a spread in the weights assigned to each horse so that the entire field of runners will hit the finish line as one. After combing through Daily Racing Form chart books for the past 100 years, I can say this concept has been an abject failure: there have been no complete field dead-heats in the history of the sport.
The closest any racing secretary has come to earning his pay by assigning weights in a handicap was in 1944, when Bossuet, Brownie, and Wait A Bit hit the wire together in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap at Aqueduct. Bossuet carried 127 pounds under the weight assignments of racing secretary John B. Campbell, conceding nine pounds to Wait A Bit and 12 to Brownie. The rest of the field was scattered back over 25 lengths. Among the also rans was Bossuet's more highly regarded stablemate, Apache, who was saddled with 132 pounds by Campbell.
Footnotes from the Daily Racing Form chart tell the story of Apache's defeat: "Apache showed early speed and then quit under the weight."
Well done, John B. Campbell!
Horse racing was one of the most popular sports of the 1940s and covered widely by the print media. But racing's concept of handicapping its participants into defeat, strangely enough, never caught on in other sports.
If a racing secretary ruled baseball, for example, it's extremely doubtful Joe DiMaggio would have hit safely in 56 consecutive games in 1941. It's a little known fact the lords of baseball, in an effort to slow down the New York Yankees in the 1920s, were close to adopting an adjustable pitcher's mound that inched closer to home plate as a player's batting average increased. According to the formula, midway through DiMaggio's streak, the mound would have shifted from its standard 60 feet, six inches to approximately 40 feet.
Conversely, the mound would slide away from the plate if hitters were below average. The idea was nixed, not because the moving mound would have been unfair to the best hitters in the sport, but because of fears pitchers would "throw out" their arms playing against inferior teams like the St. Louis Browns while pitching from as far away as second base.
Other sports experimented with racing's "handicap" concept, but none had the foresight of racing's leaders, who figured the best way to maintain a sport's popularity was to bring its stars to their knees.
Professional golf toyed with a variable hole diameter in the 1940s but found it to be impractical. Instead, the sport's ruling body came up with a restriction on the number of clubs the top-ranked golfers could carry in their bag. That experiment was abandoned on the first tee of a late 1940s tournament, reportedly when golfing great Sam Snead told rules officials where he intended to put the clubs after he took them out of his golf bag.
Ankle weights were considered in several sports, most notably track and field. Basketball and football looked at more creative ways to bring parity to their leagues. Professional football, during a long-ago exhibition season, installed the "13-man rule," permitting a losing team to put two additional players on the field whenever it fell more than 10 points behind in a game. Basketball adopted an experiment that called for each team's leading scorer to wear a yellow jersey; to discourage scoring by the best players, no fouls would be called against anyone defending against a yellow jersey.
Though neither experiment stuck, professional football and basketball have fared quite well by allowing a level playing field for their competitors.
The fact no other major sport goes out of its way to have its best players lose should not in any way discourage racing from continuing handicap races. After all, one of these days we're bound to see a 12-horse dead-heat. Won't that give the sporting world something to talk about!