Racing has many—we might say too many—naysayers, or “neigh-sayers,” which immediately reminds us of Bob Dylan’s lyrics from “Tangled Up in Blue:”
“Her folks they said our lives together sure was gonna be rough, they never did like Mama’s homemade dress, Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough.”
Dylan’s words came to mind the day following Songbird’s victory July 15 in the Delaware Handicap (G1). The wire-to-wire win by Rick Porter’s champion was by “only” a length over Martini Glass, a 4-year-old stakes-placed filly whose last win had come at the starter allowance level at Tampa Bay Downs in April.
Posts on social media—Twitter—skewed speculative following the race, with a hailstorm of negative comments regarding Songbird’s performance and her opponents.
What was up? Was it the second start back from her gut-wrenching loss to Beholder in last year’s Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1)? The “tiring” deep track at Delaware Park? The heat? The ship from West to East?
The brief answer is there wasn’t anything wrong with her race. The two-time Eclipse Award winner showed speed and class—the trademarks of a superior racehorse—in a grade 1 race at 1 1/,4 miles; she wasn’t passed in the stretch; and she was carrying more weight than anyone else in the field.
The goal of handicap races is to make them more competitive. It certainly looks as if Delaware Park racing secretary Jed Doro did his job.
The “handicap” stakes race has been under siege in North America for more than a decade. Once a vital tool of handicappers and racing secretaries alike, the “handicap” and the notion of handicap racing is going the way of the carrier pigeon.
Smaller pools of graded stakes-caliber older runners and the ease in shipping from track to track across the country have put pressure on racetracks that have too many top-level races. It’s too easy for owners and trainers to discard too high a weight from a racing secretary and find another spot to carry scale or allowance weight in stakes races. In most races that are considered “handicaps,” the spread from highweight to low is a narrow band of a few pounds.
The United Nations Handicap, a top grade 1 race for older turf runners, became the United Nations Stakes in 2004. The Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (G1), last won by Game On Dude in 2013, became the Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes in 2014 after the closure of Hollywood Park.
The Fall Highweight Handicap (G3), a traditional Thanksgiving day test for sprinters at Aqueduct, was once won by the likes of True North, Ta Wee, and Mt. Livermore at 140 pounds, but no more. The race is still around, but the mind-set has changed. Last year’s winner, Heaven’s Runway, carried a scant 123 pounds.
Songbird’s impost in the Del ’Cap was 124, which wasn’t impressive in a historical sense, but what was impressive—at least in this day—was the spread. Songbird gave from eight to 13 pounds to her rivals going 10 furlongs around two turns. While that might not sound significant to some of today’s handicappers, it is important in historical context.
Porter’s highweighted Havre de Grace, the eventual Horse of the Year, was pipped in the 2011 Del ’Cap while toting highweight of 124 pounds. Other recent victims of highweight in the race include Rosalind, who fell short in 2015; and Princess of Sylmar, who spotted Belle Gallantey eight pounds in 2014 and went down to defeat by 2 3/4 lengths.
The fact is, weight does matter. It matters just as much now as it did in the old days, especially as the distances get longer. The old rule of thumb was a pound was worth a length in a distance race. With that as a guideline, Songbird would have won by a much larger margin had the race not been a handicap. Would that have been enough for the neigh-sayers? We doubt it, because “weight will stop a train,” but it won’t stop Tweets.