And now, after all the handicaps, the New York Racing Association's "championship season" finally offers a race designed to determine the best race horse in the land.
The name of the event is the Jockey Club Gold Cup, to be televised nationally Saturday afternoon from Belmont Park as part of CBS "Sport Spectacular." The distance is 1 1/2 miles on the dirt. Unfortunately, the best horses no longer are around to compete. Forego and Seattle Siew will not run again until 1978.
The NYRA cannot be blamed for the absence of the two leading contenders for the Horse of the Year title. Somebody up here does, however, stand guilty for having mutilated the fall schedule of "championship, races almost beyond recognition.
The Woodward, for a decade the premier attraction on the American racing calendar - when it was presented at weight-for-age over 1 1/4 miles - has been run at changing distances since 1972 and, in 1976, was converted into a handicap. This confused everyone except Forego, which has captured the event four straight times.
The Whitney, presented on the first weekend of the Saratoga session, was changed from an allowance stake to a handicap in 1975.
This year, the Ruffian Stakes was turned into the Ruffian Handicap and run over the Beldame Stakes distance, with the Beldame switched to the Ruffian distance. This move seemed to perplex every filly and mare in the nation except Cum Laude Laurie, which won both races.
The Beldame, the Man O' War on the turf, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup are the only weight-for-age stakes left in which the superior horse is not required to concede poundage to lesser animals hoping to get rich or Jucky, or both, because of preferential treatment. Not even the Jockey Club Gold Cup has escaped tampering. Its distance was shortened to 12 furlongs after having been two miles from 1921 through 1975.
Handicap races will always be an economic necessity. They generate betting, and betting is racing's lifeblood. They make it possible for a fan to bet against the best horse and still have an excellent chance of winning. But handicaps do not point out the best horse unless the horse carrying the most weight wins.
For instance, when the 41-to-1 Proud Birdie captured the Marlboro Cup, a handicap, here two weeks ago, what did it prove except that Proud Birdie, when burdened with only 113 pounds, could finish nearly five lengths ahead of Crystal Water over 1 1/4 miles when Crystal Water was forced to carry 129 pounds?
Saturday, in the $346,800 Jockey Club Gold Cup, each of the older horses will carry 126 pounds. The result, accordingly, could be dramatically different.
The NYRA should return the Woodward and the Ruffian to weight-for-age conditions. The best horses of both sexes deserve more opportunities here each fall to compete under championship conditions.
This, after all, is what New York racing supposedly is all about. This is what sets New York apart from the nine-a-day dances offered at other tracks throughout the country. There is no substitute for quality, and Belmont Park's fall meeting still boasts the best racing presented anywhere in the world. For the NYRA to sacrifice its schedule by turning the Woodward and the Ruffian into two more handicaps is unpardonable.
There was a time when the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup and several other outstanding fall stakes in New York enjoyed instant and worldwide recognition. They represented something special. Now, because of the repeated changes in the conditions and the distances, these "classics" are losing their identity and some of their stature.
The purse value of many of these races has been raised appreciably. The Woodward is $150,000. The Marlboro Cup is $250,000. The Jockey Club Gold Cup is $300,000 plus the added money. That is a lot of loot, but the end result, ironically, has been to cheapen the appeal of the "championship series" with many horsemen and observers.