With the Suburban "Stakes," once one the most prestigious races in the country when it was a handicap, being run July 6 I have to ask this question. When was the last time you used weight among your criteria for greatness? I am sure most of you never have. Although the whole concept of handicaps was unfair, penalizing the superior horses just for being superior, it was a necessary part of racing from a bettor's standpoint.
You have to remember that before the '70s there was no exotic wagering other than one daily double on the first and second race. The rest was win, place, and show, period. So if you had a huge favorite, or even more so a superstar, you either had to pass the race, bet him or her at odds-on, bet another horse to place or show, or try to beat the big favorite, which was unlikely. So, to give the bettor a shot to cash a ticket, you had handicaps to theoretically bring the field closer together. Now, with all kinds of exotic bets, such as as exactas, quinellas, trifectas, superfectas, and daily doubles and pick 3s 4s, 5s, and 6s throughout the entire card, there is no need for handicaps, especially in major stakes that determine championships.
So our big stars no longer are handicapped by their own ability and are allowed to win on their own merit. As a result, the high weight in the Suburban will be carrying 123 pounds. Many believe that's the way it should be; that no other sport penalizes its main stars, although in professional football the better you are the tougher your schedule is the following year.
But with that said, by turning true handicaps into dinosaurs we have also eliminated a major barometer to determine greatness. We have had a number of big stars over the past several decades, including a pair of Triple Crown winners. But how many of those stars are mentioned among the list of all-time greats? How many are mentioned with the likes of Man o' War, Secretariat, Citation, Native Dancer, Kelso, Forego, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Buckpasser, Count Fleet, Exterminator, Swaps, Round Table, Whirlaway, Tom Fool, Discovery, Bold Ruler, Equipoise, War Admiral, Native Diver, and Seabiscuit, just to name a few? With the exception of Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Count Fleet, who won their respective Belmonts by 31 and 25 lengths, all those horses competed beyond their 3-year-old campaigns and won major handicaps carrying heavy burdens.
What if older Horses of the Year such as Cigar, Skip Away, Ghostzapper, Tiznow, Curlin, California Chrome, and Gun Runner had won grade 1 handicaps carrying 132 or 134 or even 135 or 136 pounds and conceded 10, 15, or 20 pounds to their opponents, many of them top-class opponents in their own right? There is an excellent chance they would rank much higher and possibly be among the all-time greats.
Can you imagine a horse today duplicating Forego's feat of winning back-to-back stakes (Woodward and Marlboro Cup) carrying 135 and 137 pounds and running the mile and an eighth in 1:45 4/5 and the mile and a quarter in 2:00 flat, one-fifth off the track record?
Can you imagine a horse today doing what Damascus did -- running in mile and a quarter stakes carrying 133 pounds, 131 pounds, and 130 pounds and setting a new track record that still stands in the last one, all in the span of 16 days?
Can you imagine a horse today duplicating Dr. Fager's feat of setting a new world record mile of 1:32 1/5 under 134 pounds, then winning his grass debut in the United Nations Handicap against the top grass horses in the country carrying 134 pounds and then winning the seven-furlong Vosburgh in track-record time carrying 139 pounds?
Can you imagine a smallish horse like Kelso winning 11 handicaps carrying 130 pounds or more -- one of them under 134 and two under 136?
The truth is, when warriors such as Discovery, Kelso, Forego, Exterminator, Seabiscuit, and Buckpasser for example were defeated carrying high weights, no one ever held it against them. Because horses were bred to race back then and stud fees were the farthest thing from owners' minds, losing was not as disastrous as it is today. so winning under heavy weights was far more positive than losing under heavy weights was negative. You just came back two weeks later and tried again. People remembered Exterminator winning mile and a quarter stakes under 137 and 138 pounds and basically ignored it when he was defeated under 140 pounds. The same with Discovery when he was defeated carrying 143 pounds or Forego getting beat a neck under 138 pounds. And none of those horses mentioned earlier ever suffered a serious injury due to carrying heavy weights.
A big difference in racing now and then is that competition for top horses is greater and racing secretaries today are more interested in getting top-quality horses. They wouldn't dare risk losing a big-name horse, or even their jobs. by assigning him too much weight. John Nerud went into NYRA racing secretary Tommy Trotter's office before Dr. Fager's career finale in the Vosburgh and told him he wanted him to put 145 pounds on the Doctor and let him go out with a real bang. Trotter couldn't justify doing that, so he "only" assigned him 139 pounds. Nerud believed that the airplane changed the sport. Horses used to basically run where they were stabled, but now any horse can hop on a plane and go cross-country in a few hours.
To demonstrate the one-time power of the racing secretary, Calumet Farm trainer Ben Jones once sent a string of horses to New York and won race with a horse carrying 126 pounds. Racing secretary John B. Campbell informed Jones after the race that the next time the horse ran he would carry 130 pounds. When Jones threatened to send the horse out of town, Campbell told him, "Go ahead, I can use the stall. In fact, I can use all your stalls."
Bob Kulina, former racing secretary at Monmouth Park, once said, "This is a whole new ballgame. The racing secretary then had a lot more strength because he had no competition. He opened his mouth and you jumped. This industry used to be the number one thing going. Now we're all fighting for survival. So when you have an opportunity to get a star, why give him the chance to go somewhere else?"
In 1986, Garthorn won the Metropolitan Handicap. When racing secretary Lenny Hale raised him three pounds for the Suburban Handicap, the horse went back to California.
"Lenny put out great weights and what did it get him?" Kulina said. "What did it get anyone in New York? They got a race without the big star. Is that better for the public?"
Another incident in the 1980s that reflected the changing times when it came to weight occurred at Santa Anita when Precisionist, one of the top handicap horses in the country, was withdrawn from the San Antonio Handicap three days before the race. Trainer Ross Fenstermaker's reasoning was that the horse didn't run for fear of what he might have to carry against his arch rival Greinton in the Santa Anita Handicap had he won.
Considering that Precisionist had always given Greinton weight despite breaking even with him in six meetings, his decision was understandable, but to veteran horsemen and fans it went against everything they remembered racing to be in the days of the great handicap horses.
There was one race in the '80s that went against the new trend. Wayne Lukas ran his diminutive "Iron Lady" Lady's Secret in the Ruffian Handicap despite having to carry 129 pounds. This was a 15.3-hands filly who had just run in five grade 1 stakes in seven weeks, several of them against some of the best males in the country, including a victory in the Whitney Handicap. She had also run in 37 stakes races in 26 weeks. When Lady's Secret won the Ruffian by eight lengths in 1:46 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles, it was the most weight carried to victory by a filly in a major race in New York in nearly two decades. Following the race, she was being called one of the greatest fillies of all time.
It was in the late '70s when we witnessed the tide beginning to turn and trainers wielding more power. When Affirmed was assigned 133 pounds for the 1979 Marlboro Cup, trainer Laz Barrera refused to run him, explaining it wasn't the actual weight but the nine pounds he would have to give superstar 3-year-old Spectacular Bid.
The following year it happened again, but this time it got ugly. Spectacular Bid's trainer Buddy Delp found the shoe on the other foot. When racing secrerary Lenny Hale put 136 pounds on Bid for the Marlboro Cup, the outspoken Delp went ballistic, unleashing personal attacks at Hale in local newspapers. In a tamer moment, he told Daily Racing Form, "Hale either has too much pressure on him or he doesn't know how to handicap a race properly. He is taking the sport away from the game. When you take the superstars out, people go watch something else. We have so looked forward to running in this race, but after looking at the weights we feel very disturbed and upset."
So in consecutive years, racing lost Affirmed and Spectacular Bid to what their trainers believed were excessive weight assignments. It must be noted that Spectacular Bid did win three stakes carrying 130 pounds and two carrying 132 pounds, while Affirmed won once under 130 pounds and once under 132 pounds. But the trainers of both horses obviously had their limit. That was the last time we saw heavy weights assigned in New York.
Although some feel too much weight will break a horse down, John Hay Whitney, owner of Greentree Stud, said, "A horse can carry as much weight as his owner has heart for." He added, "There is no scientific justification available for the claim that a high weight in itself will break a horse down. The accent on weight limitation is a device used by some tracks to attract name horses, thereby effectively impairing true handicaps."
Charles J. McLennon, former director of racing at Hialeah, added, "I don't know of any horse who ever broke down solely because of the weight he carried."
Horses years ago proved that weight does not curtail speed, at least not the ones considered great. Round Table equaled or broke 10 track records carrying 130 pounds or more. Swaps equaled or broke six track records in one year carrying 130 pounds or more. Spectacular Bid broke two track records carrying 130 pounds. Affirmed ran a mile and a quarter in 1:58 2/5 under 132 pounds. Damascus, as mentioned earlier, set a track record at Aqueduct for a mile and a quarter (1:59 1/5) carrying 130 pounds that still stands 51 years later. And of course there were the record-breaking or -equaling feats of Dr. Fager and Forego under staggering weights.
This held true even in the early 1900s when a 6-year-old named Iron Mask set an American record at 5 1/2 furlongs at Juarez, getting the distance in 1:03 2/5 under an incredible 150 pounds.
The bottom line is that the great weight-carrying Thoroughbreds have become a thing of the past, a relic to be placed alongside bookmakers and tape starts. Horsemen and fans have to find new criteria for establishing greatness, but the chasm between the all-time greats of the past and today's major stars will always be wide due to the elimination of handicaps and powerful racing secretaries who ruled with an iron hand. But racing has changed so dramatically there is no way that part of the sport could have survived.
We can only continue to live by the words of the great Federico Tesio, who said, "A good horse walks with his legs, gallops with his lungs, resists with his heart, but wins only with his spirit and desire."
As long as that holds true, racing, despite its current problems, will endure.