If John Blanks Campbell is looking down from heaven at Pimlico, he undoubtedly is ashamed to have his name associated with the John B. Campbell Handicap that will be run Saturday.
Campbell was the most famous American racing secretary of the 1930s and 1940s, renowned for his fairness and integrity in assigning weights for handicap races. He never would have tolerated a mismatch like the one shaping up at Pimlico, which amounts to a $150,000 giveaway to the family that owns the track.
Assigning weights always has been a tough and controversial job. Race tracks want to attract top-class horses because they help the box office. But if a racing secretary performs his task properly, and gives a heavy burden to a star horse, the trainer may take that horse to another track that treats him more charitably.
When faced with this type of situation, John Blanks Campbell never wavered. If he felt a horse deserved to carry 138 pounds, he assigned him 138 pounds, and when the trainer complained, Campbell had a simple expedient: he turned off his hearing aid. It would be interesting to see how we would have handled the thorny problems posed by the presence of Skip Trial in the 32nd running of the Campbell Handicap.
Skip Trial runs in the colors of Mrs. Ben Cohen -- the Cohen family that owns the track and pays the salary of racing secretary Larry Abbundi. If a potential conflict-of-interest situation half as blatant arose in the world of government, business or finance, it would be considered scandalous. In the racing world, it is considered business as usual.
In the late 1960s, the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association conducted a study of "house horses" -- those owned by track managements -- and cited the Cohens' stable as a case study. It found that the earnings per start of the Cohen horses were four times as great in races where Abbundi was writing the conditions and assigning weights.
But even if Skip Trial were owned by an outsider, his presence in the Campbell would cause difficulty for a racing secretary because he is so superior to his opposition. The 4-year-old has earned more than $1.1 million in his distinguished career. Last year, he was the only horse who beat Spend a Buck in a distance race and did it decisively, winning the Haskell Handicap at Monmouth by nearly four lengths.
In his last start, the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, he beat Proud Truth, the winner of last year's Breeders' Cup, and Creme Fraiche, the winner of last year's Belmont Stakes.
Skip Trial would be a tough rival for any horse in America, but at Pimlico he is facing basically the same bunch of horses who run in low-grade stakes and allowance races in Maryland every few Saturdays -- Little Bold John, Majestic Solo, Sparrowvon. Majestic Solo, who is as good as any of them right now, was running for a $25,000 claiming tag as recently as January. Even though Little Bold John and Sparrowvon did beat Skip Trial in one fluky race on a muddy track last year, the locals aren't in the same class with Skip Trial.
So how much weight should Skip Trial concede to these horses if the racing secretary attempts to "bring 'em all together"? Ten pounds? Twelve pounds? More? If Abbundi had assigned Skip Trial 126 pounds, while asking Little Bold John and the others to carry 110 or so, even such a wide gap wouldn't stop the Pimlico crowd from making Skip Trial a solid favorite.
Instead, these are the weights the main contenders in the Campbell are carrying: Skip Trial -- 122 Little Bold John -- 118 Sparrowvon -- 117 Majestic Solo -- 116
Abbundi explained that he was heavily influenced by the race last year in which Little Bold John upset Skip Trial. Furthermore, he said, "Skip Trial won his last start by a nose with 121 pounds, so I felt I could only move him up another pound."
He said he thought the Campbell was going to be a very competitive race. His opinion will be in a minority, because the Pimlico crowd will make Skip Trial an odds-on favorite; that never should happen in a handicap if the weights are good ones. In the Campbell, they are good only for the Cohens.