When Spectacular Bid shattered a world record and won the Charles H. Strub Stakes at Santa Anita recently, he posed a problem for the track's racing secretary.
Soon Bid and his rivals would be running in a handicap, where the weight assignments should theoretically equalize each horse's chances. How much should they carry?
In the Strub, Bid had carried 126 pounds, scoring by three lengths over Flying Paster (121 pounds) and a dozen lengths over Valdez (122). How much should he spot these same horses to make a truly competitive race? Ten pounds? Twelve? Fifteen?
To anyone who understnads modern-day handicapping, these spreads were almost inconceivable. They would be far too realistic. Instead, Racing Secretary Lou Eiken issued the following assignements for the $350,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 2.
Spectacular Bid 130.
Flying Paster 123.
This arrangement amounted to a virtgual $350,000 gift for Spectacular Bid's owner. Yet trainer Bud Delp still had the nerve to complain about the weights. He said h and th colt's owners were "very, very unhappy and emphatically disappointed," and briefly threatened not to run in the Santa Anita race.That is a measure of how spoiled the owners and trainers of star horses have become.
The sport has changed a great deal since the days of legendary racing secretaries like John B. Campbell and Walter Vosburgh. By reputation, at least.They were men of rock-like integrity who would rather sell their grandmothers into white slavery than assign a favorite one pound less than he deserved to carry.
In those days, though, star thoroughbreds had limited opportunities to run for big money; they eiher carried the weight or stayed in the barn. But now that so many tracks offer six-figure purses for handicap horses, trainers can pick and choose their spots. And tracks commonly try to lure big-name attractions with soft weight assignments.
While Santa Anita was coddling Spactular Bid, Haileah has been taking care of its principal attractions.
Belle's Gold may be the second-best older horse in the country, a claim he strengthened when he carried 123 pounds and won a six-furlong stake race here. Two weeks later he was running in the Hialeah Spirit Championship at seven furlongs, his optimal distance. Racing secretary Bob Kulina let him into the race with 124 pounds, virtually awarding him the race. Belle's Gold went off at 2 and 5 and won with ease.
Another of Hialeah's stars is a filly, Producer, who last year carried 133 pounds against males in France and beat them. After winning a prep race here, she was entered against a weak group of fillies in last Monday's Columbiana Handicap. Kulina wanted to put 124 pounds on her but track president John J. Brunetti reportedly overruled him and directed him to assign the filly 122.
Not surprisingly, Producer went off at 2 and 5 and won in a breeze.
Allen Jerkens, who trained horses who finished behind both Belle's Gold and Producer, complained, "In this day and age, handicapping has gone out of style. The idea of a handicap is to produce a theoretical dead heat. But what we see too often is a top-weight who goes off at 1 and 5. It doesn't make sense to me."
Nor does it make sense to Eddie McKinsey, Hialeah's general manager, who used to be one of the country's few gutsy racing secretaries.
Once at Gulfstream he watched two horses carrying 122 pounds each finish a nose apart. A week later they were due to meet in a handicap, and McKinsey assigned one of the horses 124, the other 117. The trainer of the highweight naturally howled -- but his horse managed to score a narrow victory in the handicap. That was genuine rarity: weight assignments that reflected a racing secretary's best effort to equalize the chances of the horses.
"The problems we have," McKinsey said, "are a lack of outstanding horses and track owners who put pressure on racing secretaries because they are afraid they're going to lose an attraction. The answer, of course, is to have officials who are professionals and will do what is right, not what they are pressured to do."