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. 


Leave a Comment:

John McEvoy

Your ice stormm provided at least one benefit--good colum.

03 Feb 2009 10:40 AM
Karen in Indiana

I see a possible tie-in here with the blog from Steve Haskins in which he talked about the length of races horses are running before the Derby and the lack of a Triple Crown winner. Is it possible that the horses in question are being light-weighted because they are running light 2 yr. old campaigns and then making up for that by running longer, tougher races at the start of their 3 yr. old season to qualify for the Derby? Then they are burning out before the Belmont. Like Steve pointed out in his blog, the horses of yesteryear raced more often, which would result in a higher weight handicap, but started the 3 yr. old season with more sprinting-type races.

03 Feb 2009 12:21 PM
Dale B

I would question the way the Experimental is compiled rather than the 2-year-old racing ability of the horses mentioned. Years ago, the Experimental ranked horses who displayed excellence at two, even in maiden or allowance races. Such an example off the top of my head is Zen, who was highly weighted off two impressive wins in two starts. Unfortunately, the horses now have to run 1-2-3 in Graded or listed races to make the cut. Smarty Jones, an undefeated stakes winner with the year's highest 2yo Beyer, would have been weighted in past years. Funny Cide, another unbeaten SW, would have been weighted. Big Brown, who broke his maiden in his only start by 12 3/4 at Saratoga, would have been weighted. War Emblem, with 2 wins in 3 starts for a well-regarded stable, might well have been weighted.

03 Feb 2009 3:44 PM

Great article.  I fully agree with the views expressed by Dale B.

Steve Haskins Derby Dozen is now out but there are about five glaring ommissions.  One of the fascinations of the Derby Dozen is to be able to spot the Kentucky Derby winner and his main rivals before the band wagon gets rolling and all the assorted "wagonists" jump on board.  

Steve's Derby Dozen is the gold standard but for now he and I are NOTONTHESAMEPAGE especially about the GODOLPHIN duo but I suppose there is plenty of time for him to adjust as the BIG DRAMA unfolds leading up to the first Saturday in May.  It is also surprising how quickly he dumped Breakwater Edison based upon a race(the Hutchenson) in which he seemed woefully short of work though his talent is undeniable.  Anyway interesting race days are ahead.

04 Feb 2009 11:16 AM
steve alper

good to see a note from my old DRF  boss, John McEvoy, and know he's still in the game

04 Feb 2009 3:48 PM

John: Thanks for the kind words.

Dale B:I appreciate your response and you make a very valid point. Both Smarty Jones and Funny Cide were state-bred stakes winners on the rise, but I believe it would be hard for the handicappers working on the Experimental to assess their talent levels fairly against open company, and the same could be said for maiden and allowance winners. How would a Belmont or Saratoga maiden winner stack up against a Keeneland maiden winner and/or how would they measure up against a horse that had run second in a grade II? The standard in racing is open stakes company, with the gold standard being graded competition. The three-man committee working on the Experimental needs some sort of guideline to set the bar. Also, it should be remembered that the Experimental Free Handicap is a historical reference, so the horses considered should be of the same level as horses weighted in 2008, 1998, 1988, and even 1938.

05 Feb 2009 9:22 AM

I'm also reading the "Archjockey," and loving returning to the past.  It's a great read.  Ranks up there with "Tales of the Turf," by Horace Wade.

05 Feb 2009 1:24 PM
C Bea

Our horses are less durable because our trainers and owners are cowards in comparison to days gone by. When was the last time you saw one of our contemporary horses race (much less win) carrying more than 124lbs. We run like scared little rabbits the minute the race/weights get any higher.

Bold Ruler, Round Table, etc. who all carried high weights to victory and formed the foundation of our pedigrees. No wonder our horse snap like twigs, they're rarely asked for true iron horse performance.

06 Feb 2009 12:01 PM

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