Weighing In

By Larry Levin -- The recent running of the Strub Stakes (gr. II) followed a pre-race diversion into the arcane area of weight assignments. Toccet's connections protested their impost of 123 pounds, arguing that the allowance conditions of the race, properly interpreted, called for only 117. The conditions were so poorly worded that Toccet's owner had to appeal the decision of Santa Anita's officials to the stewards to resolve the matter in Toccet's favor.

The Strub controversy raises the larger question of why racing persists with so many unnecessarily complex practices relating to weights. If officials at a major track have difficulty interpreting the weight conditions for their own graded stakes, newcomers and casual fans must find these matters puzzling.

There is no compelling logic for horses to carry different weights in the same race. Yet going to a simple equal-weight format would have to overcome calcified racing tradition.

The factors racing secretaries use to allow weight off have become so entrenched in the sport's practices that few question whether they make sense. But if a horse's connections choose to run a filly against colts or a 3-year-old against older horses, why should they expect to carry less weight? Why not give everyone the same weight and let the best horse win?

No racing secretary gives horses weight off for having a bowed tendon. Nor do runners receive a concession for having one eye or being 15 hands when their competition is all over 16 hands. A June foal doesn't get pounds from a January foal and a 9-year-old doesn't get help when running against a 4 year-old. Yet nearly every condition book will have something like "...non-winners of $25,000 at a mile or over since Dec. 18 allowed 3 pounds..." as though compensating for this factor really makes the race fair.

Racing offices write needlessly complicated weight assignments, or copy them from past condition books, and then examine entries to see if trainers took the right amount. Not only does this waste a lot of people's time, but it creates an opportunity for favoritism in designing the weights and an embarrassment when an occasional runner is disqualified from purse money after the fact for running with an incorrectly claimed allowance.

Apprentice allowances constitute another antiquated area of weight differentials. The concept of apprenticeship goes back to medieval guilds. In racing, trainers used to sign contracts with apprentices under the guise of teaching them the ropes. In reality, the trainers acquired indentured servants whom they frequently abused. Continuing the institution of apprentice riders has little to recommend it. A rookie baseball pitcher doesn't get to throw five balls instead of four to compensate for his lack of seasoning nor does the NFL give a first-year quarterback five downs. The PGA doesn't take strokes off of newcomers' scores and the NBA doesn't give rookies an extra foul.

The current system encourages trainers to use less-skilled jockeys, which leads to some apprentices riding when they lack the ability to properly control their horses, thereby endangering everyone in the race.

Finally, there is the tradition of handicap races, which has received the most debate in recent years. The industry conducts the Visa Triple Crown, the Breeders' Cup, and most grade I stakes under non-handicap conditions. However, many racing veterans hold out for the idea of proving the worth of what is assumed to be the best horse by giving it the heaviest burden. Instead of establishing something noteworthy, modern handicap assignments have become silly. Consider the Gardenia Handicap (gr. III), Ellis Park's only graded stakes. This contest for 3-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, has had starting highweights in the last three years of 119, 117, and 119 pounds, less than the 120 pounds carried by 2-year-old maiden claiming fillies running at the same track for a bottom level tag of $15,000.

None of these forms of giving different weights in the same race make the sport more prestigious, more accessible, or in any way better. The rationale of "it's always been that way" is no longer convincing. Thoroughbred racing should seek to make the sport fairer and more rational.

LARRY LEVIN is a Thoroughbred owner and breeder in Lexington.