The question of weight carrying—and specifically the ratio of weights in the leading handicap races—is probably one of the most controversial subjects in racing today. We've heard and read more about the assignment of weights in the handicap division this season than in recent years, and the reason undoubtedly can be traced back to the day at Hialeah last winter when Leslie Combs II said he wouldn't start Nashua if he was ever given more than 130 pounds to carry. Now, essentially, Mr. Combs—or any other owner of a fine champion—cannot be faulted for feeling that the handicapper (who usually has the title of Racing Secretary) sits up nights devising fiendish methods of weighting his fields in such manner that the best horse has no chance of winning. Owners and trainers traditionally come around, upon the announcement of the weights, to condemn the injustice of asking "my poor little horse" to carry such an unforgivable burden. The late John Campbell, official handicapper for the Jockey Club, got so accustomed to the steady stream of incensed trainers parading in and out of his office that he hung an official crying towel by the door, and when the verbal warfare became—as it nearly always did—too noisy, he'd simply turn off his hearing aid.
By definition a handicap is a race in which the weights to be carried by the horses are adjusted by the handicapper for the purpose of equalizing their chances of winning. Mr. Campbell's successor at all the New York tracks, Frank E. (Jimmy) Kilroe, has his own definition of the handicap: "Before it most of the people think they have a real good chance. And after it they think they have a real good excuse." Actually you might say that the handicap is a necessary evil to the sport of racing. Evil because no contest is really a true test of superiority unless it is conducted on even terms. And yet a necessity because how can you expect a man with an average horse to keep on running him week after week against a good horse unless the weights—and weight in racing is the only equalizer—give him at least some sort of chance? For example, how many of the stables who have competed against Nashua in the champion's five handicap races this season do you suppose would have been willing to tackle him at equal weights? When Nashua finished fourth (although beaten only a length for all of it) in last week's Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park, he was giving away from 14 to 25 pounds to his seven rivals. The winner, Mrs. Edward E. Robbins' Midafternoon, who had never won a stake before, got in with 111 pounds to Nashua's 130. That's a 19-pound spread, and, as Trainer Tom Waller frankly stated later, "The only reason we entered was because we figured we had slightly the best of it in the weights." Winning Jockey Bill Boland said, just as candidly, "My horse ran the best race of his career [his time for the mile, 1:35, was the second fastest ever turned in at Belmont], but I wouldn't kid anyone. The weights won it for us."
"There is," says Handicapper Kilroe, "no positive rule to follow in assigning weights. In general you can figure a length at a mile is equal to about 2½ or three pounds [at distances under a mile it is about four pounds to a length, and at a mile and a quarter it is about two pounds to a length], but there are other factors to consider, such as current form, one horse's preference for a certain kind of track, and, in looking over past performances, the appreciation of how the various horses were going at the finish."
Kilroe is highly in favor of more weight-for-age events (such as the Sysonby and Jockey Club Gold Cup) to determine genuine superiority, but he also appreciates that such races usually draw small fields which do little to encourage a large pari-mutuel turnover. In contrast to the handicap, the weight-for-age race is one in which all horses carry weight according to the official scale of weights and according to sex and age regardless of ability or form. Thus, in the Sysonby in the fall it is expected that the best 3-year-olds, all carrying scale weight of 121 pounds, will take on the leading horses of the handicap division, all carrying 126 pounds. Quite obviously a race of this significance can hardly expect to attract any but the very best horses in training.
To get back for a moment to the question of weight itself and Combs's statement about the 130 pounds on Nashua. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who trains Nashua, puts forth the argument that weight in excess of 130 pounds can only hasten the end of a career and openly invite a serious breakdown. Among those who agree with him and favor the 130-pound limit are Ben Jones of Calumet Farm and King Ranch-owner Robert Kleberg. "There's no question that horses are capable of carrying a lot more weight," said Mr. Kleberg the other day, "but my point is that I can't see the necessity for requiring them to do so at the risk of breaking them down. You can still have a perfectly fair handicap with a top weight at 130 pounds and let your handicapper take the weight off the bottom end."
A dissenting opinion was voiced by Mr. Kleberg's trainer, Max Hirsch. "If great horses in the past could win carrying more than 130 pounds, a great horse should be able to do the same thing today—if he's a great horse. Everybody appreciates the fact that a horse isn't going to win every race. Owners shouldn't expect to win everything. They should be satisfied to run with any weight assigned by a competent Racing Secretary, and be thankful when they win that their horse is good enough to do the job. Speaking of weight, how about the jumpers? A horse can win a two-mile steeplechase carrying over 165 pounds. Maybe he's not going as fast as Citation, but he's doing the best he can, and if he's good he doesn't break down either. But, shucks, I like to think of racing as a sport even if it's also a business. Nobody forces a man to enter his horse in any race, but once he decides to run, then run for the pleasure of it and forget about how much money your horse might win you. Weight is going to get you beaten once in a while, but a man who doesn't expect to take a beating shouldn't be in horse racing to start with."
A RACE TO SEE
Assuming that the best horses in America could be assembled for a 1-mile race over a dirt track, the weights might be assigned as follows: Swaps 130, Nashua 129, Social Outcast 123, Bobby Brocato 123, Find 117, Fisherman 117, Porterhouse 116, Mr. Gus 116, Midafternoon 115, Nance's Lad 115, Joe Jones 114, Switch On 112. (Excepted from this field are: all 3-year-olds, who will have their chance to meet older horses in the fall races; Sailor, recently retired; and Summer Tan, soon to start a comeback.)