Recent weighty events at Santa Anita suggest that handicaps have become anachronistic. The events also recall a story that's ancient according to some calendars but nevertheless illuminating.
At his barn in New York, John Nerud received a call from California. Somebody working in the racing office at Hollywood Park informed the trainer that Dr. Fager would be asked to carry 124 pounds in the Californian Stakes.
And so Nerud finalized travel arrangements, and within a few days he was loading Dr. Fager onto a van to begin the long trip west. About the same time, the Hollywood Park racing office realized it had made a serious error, a miscalculation of the complicated allowance conditions. Dr. Fager would have to carry 130, not 124, pounds. Reluctant to make the corrective phone call, the racing office handed the task off to Bob Benoit, the track's director of publicity.
But by the time Benoit was able to contact the trainer in New York, Dr. Fager was already on an airplane headed to Southern California. Benoit braced himself for the worst. Would Nerud erupt in anger? Would he decide against running in the Californian and insist Hollywood Park pick up the travel expenses?
Benoit explained there had been, well, a mistake. A six-pound mistake. Telling Nerud that Dr. Fager would have to carry 130 pounds, Benoit waited for the explosion.
But Nerud, as the story goes, only said, "That's OK. It won't matter."
And, of course, it didn't. Dr. Fager won by three lengths. That happened back in 1968. Dr. Fager was a truly great racehorse; Nerud a truly great horseman. In recent years, the sport has seen very few of either.
As for the recent weighty events, they, too, are illuminating. A few days prior to Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), trainer Bobby Frankel announced he wouldn't enter Medaglia d'Oro because he was unhappy with the colt's weight assignment. Frankel said the 124-pound assignment given Medgalia d'Oro was too much. The Strub winner, he said, should have been assigned 122 pounds.
Of course, to suggest two pounds would make any significant difference in the performance of an 1,100-pound racehorse was like arguing Tiger Woods would play badly because he had a couple M&Ms in his pocket. It was absurd.
Frankel also said he worried about future weight assignments. Should Medaglia d'Oro win with 124 pounds, then, God forbid, he might have to carry 125 in some future handicap. That explanation was also nonsensical, especially since many of the major stakes in the fall are run under weight-for-age conditions.
The Santa Anita Handicap would have been the highlight of the young racing season, matching the sport's two most accomplished older horses, Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro; the race would have spiked national interest and excited a multitude of fans. But, it seems, in this Ironic Age of ours, sports are no longer about competition and not about fans.
As it turned out, Frankel won the race anyway, with Milwaukee Brew, who wore down Congaree in the final yards. And then it was Bob Baffert's turn to complain. Congaree's loss, Baffert said, was a consequence of the horse's carrying 124 pounds, compared to Milwaukee Brew's 119.
Amid the weighty nonsense, there was a single valid, although hardly original, point. Frankel suggested major stakes should be run under weight-for-age conditions.
Handicaps were necessary years ago, when racing secretaries depended largely on the local horse population to fill races. By piling weight on the local champion, the racing secretary gave rivals an incentive to try again.
But nobody piles on weight anymore to make races more competitive. Modern handicaps are largely a sham. In 1968, Dr. Fager never carried less than 130 pounds. But few horses these days ever carry more than 126 pounds, and the best horses travel easily across the nation in search of light opportunities and lighter opposition.
Of course, if handicaps are discontinued and if some modern Dr. Fager miraculously comes along, opposing trainers will whine that in the interest of fairness and competition, such a horse should be forced to carry 130 or more pounds. But it won't matter.Gary West is a correspondent for The Blood-Horse.