Monmouth Park started printing posters last week to announce the impending appearance of the great Spectacular Bid at their track. At the same time, Monmouth's racing secretary was mulling over the weight assignments he would give Bid and the other horses who had been nominated to Saturday's $250,000 Haskell Handicap.
These two events were not unrelated. Monmouth would have rolled a red carpet from Oceanport N.J. to Bid's home base in Stanton, Del., to lure the champion. Other tracks, in similar circumstances, have made hefty under-the-table payments to owners and trainers to influence their intentions. Horse like Bid are big box-office attractions.
The one possible hitch for Monmouth was the fact that the Haskell is a handicap theoretically is to equalize the chances of every entrant with weight assignments. This can't really be done, of course. But superior horses at least must carry enough weight, and concede enough to their rivals, that the outcome is not a forgone conclusion.
Bob Kulina, Monmouth racing secretary, obviously had to give Spectacular Bid a heavy impost. The colt has been invincible this season. In his last performance, he had carried 132 pounds and demolished the best horses in California by seven lengths.
With that victory in mind, Kulina couldn't possibly follow the rules of the game and put any less than 135 pounds on Bid. And a three-pound penalty for a seven-length victory would be mild. If he were being truly realistic and faithful to the definition of handicap (which racing secretaries never are) Bid's assignment should have approached 140.
But while Kulina was cogitating, Bid's trainer Bud Delp was certainly putting a lot of pressure on Monmouth officials, telling them he wouldn't run if the weights weren't right. And those same officials were surely putting the pressure onto Kulina's shoulders.
This is an old story, of course. Ever since Adm. Henry Rous conceived handicaps in the mid-19th century, racing secretaries have been subjected to such influences. Few could resist them. "I might pick out three prime ministers who would satisfy the public," Rous wrote, "but I can discover no man gifted with the qualifications of the handicapper. We want a man like Ceasar's wife, above suspicion, of independent means, with a perfect knowledge of the form and actual condition of every horse."
One American racing secretary came close to this standard. John Blanks Campbell earned fame for his rocklike integrity, his refusal to budge from his own handicapping judgment. When Ben Jones, trainer of the great Calumet Farm horses in the 1940s, complained about a particular weight assignment, Campbell wouldn't concede a pound. Instead he hung a crying towel by the entrance of his office.
These were the traditions and pressures that Kulina had to be considering when he decided what to do about Spectacular Bid. On Monday he released his weight assignments.
Kulina did not equivocate. He did not compromise. He sold out. He gave him 132 pounds. Adm. Rous and John Blanks Campbell were turning over in their graves.
It was almost unheard-of for a horse to win a handicap under 132 pounds by seven lengths and not be asked to pick up a single pound. And Kulina's spreads in the weights were even more ludicrous.
Spectacular Bid had spotted 10 or more pounds to all the top horses on the West Coast and annihilated them. Now he was being asked to concede eight to Overskate, whose best races are on the grass, and to Czaravich, who just finished a disappointing third in his last start at Saratoga.
Of course, Overskate and Czaravich aren't running on Saturday. The only trainers who would take on the champ under such conditions are ones with lesser horses who are content to run for second money. The Haskell will be a farce.
Trainer Bud Delp and owner Harry Meyerhoff hardly can be blamed for trying to put Bid on the path of least resistance. They are managing a $22 million property, and they don't want to subject him to any more risks than necessary.
They especially wanted a soft assignment at Monmouth in order to influence the weights for the prestigious Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park next month. If Bid had won under 135 in New Jersey, racing secretary Lenny Hale would have been obliged to make him carry 137 or 138.
Now Hale has the opportunity to let him in light, and he will be under pressure to do so, especially after his onerous weight assignment kept Affirmed out of last year's Marlboro Cup. The betting is that Adm. Rous will be turning over in his grave again.