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What Happened to the Handicap?

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This past Saturday, Bob Baffert's Misremembered won the 73rd running of the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and, in the process, joined a long list of horses to have won this prestigious event.  Horses like John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Ack Ack, and Seabiscuit, to name of few.  But while the group Misremembered joins is select, the conditions of his victory (and the victories of most recent winners of the Big Cap) are much different than those of the many great horses that came before.  Specifically, Misremembered carried 116 pounds of weight on Saturday while the top-weight horses in the field carried an almost laughably low 117 pounds.  

I brought this question up in the preview for the Santa Anita Handicap but in light of this weekend's Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap it seems like a good time to bring it up again: what in the world has happened to the handicap in horse racing?  Zenyatta will carry 127 pounds this Saturday in her return to the track, a fairly astonishing number in today's world of ridiculously low handicap weights.  But Zenyatta's situation is the exception to the rule; by and large horses carry very little weight in comparison to their predecessors.  Of course, if Santa Anita really wanted to create an even playing field through the use of added weight (given the huge disparity in talent between Zenyatta and the other fillies and mares she'll face on Saturday) they would have assigned her something in the neighborhood of 135 to 140 pounds.  We all know that would never happen.

This year's Big Cap featured four horses carrying the high weight of 117 pounds, the lowest top-weight in the last ten years.  For reference purposes, I've listed below the top weight horses for the last ten Santa Anita Handicaps (not the winners weights, just the top-weight):

2010: 117 (Neko Bay, Marsh Side, Loup Breton, Tiger's Rock, Mast Track)
2009: 121 (Einstein)
2008: 119 (Tiago, Monterey Jazz)
2007: 124 (Lava Man)
2006: 120 (Lava Man, High Limit)
2005: 122 (Saint Liam)
2004: 119 (Olmodavor)
2003: 124 (Congaree)
2002: 118 (Futural, Euchre)
2001: 122 (Tiznow)


Does the notion of a true handicap horse race have a place in today's racing world?  It certainly doesn't appear like it.  Horses are fragile animals and, depending on who you talk to, some believe the breed is weaker today than it was twenty or thirty years ago.  And while we can debate the reasons for the changes in the breed, it's clear that today's thoroughbred doesn't run as frequently, as far, or with as much weight as it did in the past.

Aside from the 127 pounds that Zenyatta will carry in the Santa Margarita, can anyone remember a recent horse running with an impost anywhere near 130?  Furthermore, doesn't it appear odd that the top weights in many of today's handicap races are less than the weight that three-year-old colts will carry at the Kentucky Derby (126 pounds).  This begs another question: are the horses in the Derby (and other Triple Crown races) carrying too much weight or are tracks assigning too little?    

The decline of high top-weight horses, I believe, is due to a couple of key factors.  First, the quality generally just isn't there as it was in the past.  Look at the names of the high weights at the Santa Anita Handicap over the past ten years.  There are some pretty good horses in that list (Lava Man, Saint Liam, Congaree) but are there any truly great horses?  The best is probably the two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Tiznow, and he only carried 122 pounds.  What we don't see is that truly great horse that you had to assign a high weight to in order to ensure that somebody shows up to run against him.

Second, and probably more importantly, trainers have an abundance of options in terms of tracks and races to run their horses.  Transporting a horse cross country today is a lot easier and more efficient than it was twenty or thirty years ago.  As a result, a trainer can specifically avoid a race where his horse will have to carry a lot of weight in favor of a race with better conditions.  If the Santa Anita racing secretary is going to assign 128 pounds to your horse, you can simply take him to a track that won't require him to carry that much weight.  This in turn has an impact on racing secretaries - do you assign a high weight to a horse and risk the connections shipping their animal elsewhere to compete?

Perhaps a more important question than "what has happened to the handicap race?" is the one that asks "does weight really matter?"  How much weight does it take to truly make a difference in the way a race is run and won? Zenyatta is a massively large mare, she probably weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,100 to 1,200 pounds, maybe more.  On a 1,200 pound horse does it really matter if they carry 120 or 130 pounds?  Will ten pounds make that big of a difference?  What about five pounds, or three pounds?

Ask ten different horseplayers about the impact of weight on a racehorse and you'll probably get ten different answers.  Twenty or thirty years ago weight was a key factor in analyzing a race.  Of course, horses were carrying greater amounts of weight at that time which (likely) had a greater impact on the individual horse and race.  In today's racing it's very unusual to witness a race with any great weight disparity between the entries.  You might see a two or three pound difference but it's debatable as to whether that difference materially changes the way a race is run.

Handicap racing has been an important part of the sport for many years and perhaps in the future it's significance will return.  But until meaningful weights are assigned it appears to only be a relic of a bygone era.

Here's a look at some great horses from the past and the weight that they carried during their careers*:

  • The late great John Henry carried  130 pounds in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap and in the 1981 Hollywood Gold Cup.  John Henry never carried less than 125 pounds in any race during his last four years of competing and has the dubious distinction of being the last horse to win the Big Cap while carrying 130 pounds or more.
  • The filly, Lady's Secret, carried 129 pounds in the 1986 Ruffian at Belmont.  She went on to win that race by eight lengths.
  • Seabiscuit carried 130+ pounds thirteen times over the course of his career.
  • Cigar carried 130 pounds in back-to-back races in 1996: the MassCap and the Citation Challenge.  
  • The last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, carried 132 pounds in the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup, a race he won by 3/4 of a length over Sirlad.  
  • In 1968, Damascus ran in six consecutive races where he carried 133, 131, 130, 134, 134, and 133 pounds.  He won three of those races.  
  • Perhaps the "King of Carrying Weight", Dr. Fager carried more than 130 pounds in each of the final eight races of his career, including a whopping 139 pounds in his final race, the Vosburgh, which he won by six lengths over Kissin' George
  • Forego carried more than 135 pounds nine times in his illustrious career.  He only won two of those races.
  • Somewhat of an oddity among the list of great horses that carried weight was the career of Secretariat; Big Red never carried more than 126 pounds.  Now, to be fair, Secretariat did not race as a four year old and most of the races he ran in during his career were weight for age events so he never had the opportunity to carry the weight that many of his historical predecessors did.

*Racing information obtained from the American Racing Manual.