When Bold Ruler made the final start of his illustrious career, he carried 134 pounds to win the Monmouth Handicap on July 19, 1958. The Wheatley Stable color-bearer was a 4-year-old defeating five 5-year-olds owned by some of the top racing stables of the day--Fairlawn Farm, Elmendorf Farm, Christopher T. Chenery, King Ranch, and Cal Partee.
There are many weighty issues facing the Thoroughbred industry these days. Several of them actually involve weight.
Times change in every industry. The hot thing in the music world today is the Apple iPod, the MP3 player that lets you download as many as 10,000 songs into a unit that fits in your shirt pocket.
When Bold Ruler won the Monmouth Handicap in 1958, no one could have dreamed of such a thing as the iPod and its signature tiny white earplugs. Similarly, those who enjoyed handicap racing in the days of Bold Ruler and Round Table could not have envisioned an era such as we are in now, where handicap racing has become meaningless.
There is no longer a need for reel-to-reel tape recorders and, for that matter, cassettes. There is also no longer a need for handicap races.
When Bold Ruler was Horse of the Year in 1957, and Round Table the following year, they carried weight. Many people today say we are penalizing our good horses by making them carry more weight. In the '50s, it was seen as a way not to penalize, but identify true champions.
In the 1958 Monmouth Handicap, Sharpsburg did all he could to challenge Bold Ruler, but he simply could not get by the great champion. As the Daily Racing Form
chart stated, he "was not good enough."
This is despite the fact Sharpsburg carried 113 pounds, 21 fewer than Bold Ruler. Third-place finisher Bill's Sky Boy carried 105 pounds, and was followed across the line by Third Brother (110), Dotted Line (102), and Beam Rider (108).
Last year, this writer voted for Mineshaft for Horse of the Year and champion older horse (I suggest we quit saying handicap horse). From January to September, the son of A.P. Indy was as good as they get, winning seven of nine and finishing second twice, once by a head when giving the winner eight pounds.
The most weight Mineshaft carried was 126 pounds, which he did in easy grade I wins in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, both weight-for-age races. The most he carried in a handicap was 123 pounds.
There were 37 grade I handicaps run in North America in 2003, and in only nine did the winner carry 122 pounds or more. In 20, the winner carried 119 pounds or fewer.
The horse that carried the most weight to victory in a grade I handicap in 2003 was Azeri, who won the Vanity Handicap while carrying 127 pounds. She gave from nine to 17 pounds to her six competitors and won by two lengths, proving she could give weight and still win.
The American Graded Stakes Committee is scheduled to meet in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aug. 12. The group then annually reconvenes in November to make its decisions on grades for the coming year. The committee should discuss if it is time to completely drop grades from handicaps, thus forcing them to become stakes.
Times have changed. Whether for the better is up for discussion. But these days, the country's best older horses rarely line up and race against each other in handicaps. Trainers often decline to run if their charges are asked to carry weight, and racing secretaries know that. Since racing secretaries today aren't going to really weight horses, let's just do away with handicaps and move on.
Look at the iPod and realize it is the right thing to do.