Many in the industry have lost touch with the importance of the Experimental Free Handicap, which was released by The Jockey Club Feb. 2 and appears on page 38 of the February 11, 2017 issue of BloodHorse magazine. It remains a vital historical marker for a sport that allows for pretty straightforward comparisons from generation to generation. Perhaps the only issues with it today are the timing of its release and its name.
The crew that puts this together—Tom Robbins of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, P.J. Campo of The Stronach Group, Churchill Downs and Keeneland’s Ben Huffman, Steve Lym of Woodbine Entertainment, and the New York Racing Association’s Martin Panza—put in a lot of hours crafting the listing. It’s not something tossed together after New Year’s Day. Covering all stakes races for 2-year-olds, they begin in earnest in July, and confer online and via phone on a weekly basis. At year’s end the crew takes some 400-450 juveniles into consideration.
“It takes awhile,” Robbins said. “You take a guy like P.J., who was preoccupied with the Pegasus (World Cup Invitational Stakes, G1) and other races at Gulfstream. Ben is preparing for his stuff coming up and is on the road out there hustling Triple Crown nominations; Martin is in full swing in New York.”
Robbins says the team “talks about the merits of each horse. We spend a little more time on the horses at the top level than at the lower levels, but the importance of those is critical to making this thing consistent with past years. If we think a particular horse stands out, we’ll give them a little more, just like the folks that did this many years ago.”
This year the list came out two weeks after the Eclipse Awards. With the instant demands of the day, we’re wondering whether the process could be quickened some.
“Could we get it a little earlier? It’s tough,” Robbins professed. “That takes time. Our final meeting was on Monday (Jan. 30), and it was released Thursday (Feb. 2).”
We understand the dynamics, but if it could nudge closer to the Eclipse Awards, the Experimental might be a little more relevant to the moment.
To the racing fan the Experimental was at its most relevant in the 1980s.
Starting in 1981 with the help of Daily Racing Form columnist Leon Rasmussen, the Experimental Free Handicap was used as a tool to predict the winner of the Kentucky Derby (G1) along with Dr. Steve Roman’s Dosage Index (a mathematical formula that looks at certain influential sires in a horse’s four-cross pedigree). The “dual qualifier” angle whittled the crop down to horses with a DI of 4.00 or below (the lower the number the more suited to 10 furlongs) and that were weighted within 10 pounds of the Experimental highweight at 2, and what an angle it was…until Strike the Gold came along in 1991. Other non-qualifiers such as Real Quiet and Giacomo pretty much drew the theories’ popularity to an end, but today’s fans still like to sneak a peek.
To see the 2016 Experimental list with full pedigree, breeder, trainer, race record, best race performance, and Dosage, you can download the PDF at BloodHorse.com.
For those still wanting to play along there are 14 horses weighted within 10 pounds of topweight (and champion) Classic Empire. From the DI perspective Classic Empire’s 5.00 DI “excludes” him from the Derby. Those eligible under the “Dual Qualifier” this year, from 125 pounds down, are Not This Time, Oscar Performance, Practical Joke, Mastery, Gormley, Good Samaritan, Klimt, McCraken, Gunnevera, and Hemsworth.
The other hitch with the Experimental today is the name. There was a rhyme and a reason to its name in the 1930s, when it was an actual race and “free” to enter, but today it could use a brush up.
“I talked to a guy responsible for rating the 2-year-olds in Europe in England…he wanted to know what kind of experiment it was,” Robbins said with a laugh. “He didn’t know what it meant.”
Most people in the industry today don’t know what it means. Try to explain it to a novice? Forget it.
We now have the international “World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.” It’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s time for a reboot of the Experimental brand. “North America’s Top 2-Year-Old Rankings?” Sounds like something that might carry a little more weight.