The Weight - by Evan Hammonds

The icy conditions and sub-freezing temperatures of the last week in Central Kentucky gave us good reasons to catch up on some reading. Awaiting Steve Haskin’s first Derby Dozen, I went to the bookshelf at home and pulled down The Archjockey of Canterbury and Other Tales by former Blood-Horse editor Kent Hollingsworth.

Published by The Blood-Horse in 1986, Hollingsworth’s book is a collection of some of his best writing—and some of the best writing about Thoroughbred racing—while he served as editor from 1963-86.

Cracking it open for the first time in too long a while, I wasn’t hard-pressed to find a poignant point.

In the preface Hollingsworth noted “racing is much the same today as it was 20 years ago, or a century ago—only the names and numbers have changed.”

In a column on Northern Dancer’s victory in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, Hollingsworth addresses that particular crop when they were 2-year-olds and their status on the previous year’s Experimental Free Handicap. Noting Northern Dancer, at 123, was just three pounds off highweight Raise a Native, and Derby runner-up Hill Rise was at 115, he wrote, “one usually does not think of looking that far down among the 2-year-olds to find the Kentucky Derby contenders.”

It was then that I peered up from the book and stared out the window. Perhaps more than just the names and numbers have changed since then.

The Experimental Free Handicap, published by The Jockey Club since 1935, is not only a detailed analysis of last year’s 2-year-old crop crafted by the nation’s top racing secretaries, but a crystal ball-like offering of racing class for the coming classics. The time-honored handicapping tool suggests the top-weighted male and those within 10 pounds of him on the scale have a better chance of standing up to the rigors of negotiating 11⁄4 miles on the first Saturday in May.

But that hasn’t been the case of late, suggesting a seismic shift in how Thoroughbreds have been raised, fed, conditioned, and trained over the past 20 years.

Prior to Street Sense, who won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in 2007 after being highweighted at 127 pounds in 2006, the last 2-year-old highweight to win the Derby was mighty Spectacular Bid in 1979. In that span of 28 years, only one highweight even won a classic race—that being Timber Country, who won the Preakness (gr. I) in 1995 after being the top-weighted juvenile the previous year.

Here’s how recent Derby winners stacked up as juveniles on the Experimental:

• Big Brown, last year’s Derby and Preakness winner, had just a maiden win to his credit at 2 and was not weighted. One has to have won or placed in an open stakes to be included.

• Barbaro, the 2006 winner, was weighted at 114 pounds off his win in the Laurel Futurity, 12 pounds below Stevie Wonderboy.

• Giacomo (2005) fit the 10-pound criterion with an assignment of 122 pounds off his runner-up effort in the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I), four pounds less than co-highweights Declan’s Moon and Wilko.

• Neither Smarty Jones (’04), Funny Cide (’03), War Emblem (’02), nor Monarchos (’01) had proved enough at 2 to be weighted on the Experimental.

Has the “bottom” dropped out of the “body of work” angle? Has racing soundness become passé?

At the head of the 2008 crop is champion Midshipman, who tops the list at 126 pounds, the standard weight assessment for the best male.

Twelve other 2-year-old males are weighted at 117 or higher on this year’s scale. Will one of these guys have what it takes to win this year’s Run for the Roses? We’ll have to “weight” and see. 

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