The Great Weight Debate
Turns out I was wrong.
The latest incarnation of Tupac vs. Biggie is Havre De Grace, the beast from the East, and Blind Luck, the wonder from the West. In 2010, the battle was a bit one-sided, as Blind Luck bested her Eastern rival in three of four head-to-head meetings, including the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic, in which the two sophomore fillies finished second and third behind older foe Unrivaled Belle.
However, all that changed this year when Havre De Grace smoked Blind Luck by 3 ¼ lengths in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 19. That race was at equal weights and earned the winner a 106 Brisnet speed figure. Since then, Havre De Grace has captured the Grade 1 Apple Blossom (also at Oaklawn) with a 111 Brisnet number and the Grade 3 Obeah at Delaware Park with a 102 fig. Meanwhile, Blind Luck annexed the Grade 2 La Troienne, while recording a 101 Brisnet speed rating, and the Grade 1 Vanity with a 95.
So, along comes this weekend's Delaware Handicap and another highly-anticipated clash between the country's two premier fillies. After the weights came out on Sunday, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer confirmed that his charge, Blind Luck, would start in the Grade 2, $750,000 affair.
Havre De Grace was given the top impost of 124 pounds, while Blind Luck is slated to carry 122.
“I thought she [Blind Luck] should get some weight from Havre de Grace,” Hollendorfer told the Daily Racing Form. “I wasn’t going to run if they put me at equal weights or gave me a pound. They gave us two pounds. We’re coming into her backyard.’’
Well, great, everything worked out, right? Uh, not so fast. According to numerous Facebook posts I saw and an article by my buddy and former colleague Brian Zipse of Horse Racing Nation, the weights are a joke.
“Blind Luck getting two pounds from Havre De Grace at this point in their respective careers is a farce,” Zipse wrote, later adding that Hollendorfer's wait-and-see stance may have contributed to Delaware Park Racing Secretary Pat Pope's weighty decision.
Others were far less charitable in their appraisals of Hollendorfer and Pope. One person called the former a “coward” for even bringing up the weights, while another questioned his integrity. Several more, including veteran turf writer Steve Haskin, believed that Pope was essentially a sellout — bending to Hollendorfer's will like Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Look, I understand and to a certain extent even agree with those who believe that Havre De Grace and Blind Luck should be racing at equal weights on Saturday, but to impugn Hollendorfer and Pope for doing what members of their respective professions have been doing for eons and eons? Come on now.
After all, didn't Blind Luck concede a staggering 10 pounds to Havre De Grace in last year's Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Parx Racing?
“Weight is always a concern, and of course it's a big concern with a great filly like Havre de Grace,” Hollendorfer said before that Grade 2 event. “We wanted to take the chance anyway, because we thought timing-wise this is an ideal prep for our horse.”
Does that sound like the utterances of a coward?
As for Pope, a racing secretary’s job is to weight horses based on their recent performances — in theory, to produce a dead-heat encompassing the entire field. Hence, to use Blind Luck’s two-year-old form as a justification for — or against — a greater impost in the Delaware Handicap is ridiculous, as it is irrelevant at this point (or do we all agree that Uncle Mo is this year’s top three-year old based on his superlative effort in the ’09 BC Juvenile?).
What’s more, for all intents and purposes, the handicap system in America is dead anyway. In a terrific piece that appeared in the Daily Racing Form on Oct. 22, 2009, author Ryan Goldberg noted that no horse since Skip Away in the 1998 Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park has toted more than 129 pounds in a major American route race (Skip Away turned back Stormin Fever in the Iselin while carrying 131 lbs.).
Goldberg went on to say that “at the elite level, handicaps appear less frequently, and, more important, the weight spread — how much the top horse must concede — has narrowed significantly.
“In 1970, the top weight in the richest races averaged 123.5 pounds and the spread was 13.9 pounds. Both measurements have steadfastly declined since then. In 2008, the top weight in Grade 1 handicaps averaged 120.67 pounds and the spread was 7.37 pounds,” Goldberg reported.
Goldberg and others believe that this erosion of handicap racing in the United States can be traced to two things: 1) More racetracks; and 2) Larger purses. Both of which have served to switch the balance of power from racing secretaries to owners and trainers.
“I think handicaps are outdated to a point,” P.J. Campo, NYRA's racing director, told the Form. “No one wants to carry weight anymore, and if you put too much weight on a guy, they'll just get in a van or get on a plane and go someplace else.”
There’s another reason trainers like Hollendorfer grouse about weights and, ironically, it stems from the actions of a great many of those presently calling the veteran conditioner to the carpet over his recent bout of bellyaching — mainly, the Eclipse Award voters, who rarely (if ever) consider weight assignments when doling out year-end honors.
The vast majority of media types that voted Zenyatta Horse of the Year following her game runner-up finish to Blame in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic fail to mention that Blame spotted the brilliant race mare three pounds in that event; nor do those who wax poetic about Rachel Alexandra's stirring victory in the 2009 Woodward typically point out that the eventual champ was getting eight pounds from her older male rivals that day.
Yes, I'm aware that weight concessions have been granted to female horses competing against males since before Larry King first said “I do” (back when texting was done with a hammer and chisel). But, remember, both Rachel and Zenyatta were said to be the best of the best… yet both received weight breaks from supposedly inferior competition in their biggest triumphs.
Part of the reason for this is that most racing fans and handicappers — including yours truly — simply don’t put the emphasis on weight that many trainers and owners do. However, that is no reason to call Hollendorfer a coward or to chastise a racing secretary for merely doing his job.
Ease up, Biggie.
Derek Simon’s Free Weekend Win Factor Plays
COMMENTS: Just like 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, BLIND LUCK (who some have called “Little Zenyatta” due to her late-running tactics) is often at the mercy of the pace. And, in fact, “No Luck” might be a more appropriate name for the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee, as the four-year-old filly catches yet another short and relatively paceless field. Despite 11 wins from just 20 career starts, Blind Luck is zip for her last four attempts in races featuring five or fewer entrants — which is precisely the scenario she faces in Saturday’s Delaware Handicap. Hence, HAVRE DE GRACE, who has more early zip — and pretty good late foot too — looks like the logical play, despite the fact that she’s spotting her more accomplished rival a whopping two pounds. If you’re looking for a longshot with reasonable shot to win, you might throw a deuce or two at LIFE AT TEN, who has the ability to get clear early with moderate fractions. Yeah, her late speed rations (LSRs) have been horrendous, but trainer Todd Pletcher tends to do well with horses whose pace figures are suspect. Plus, Life At Ten is the defending Delaware Handicap champion.
BET(S): WIN on 3 (at odds of 7-5 or greater) & 1 (at odds of 6-1 or greater).