Are America's great handicap races, like Saturday's Pimlico Special, obsolete?
Yes, says Carl Nafzger, trainer of Unbridled, two days before his horse carries highweight of 122 pounds in one of the most stellar fields ever assembled at Pimlico.
"The race is great; the new American Championship Racing Series is great," Nafzger says of the 10-stakes tour, of which the Pimlico Special is the fourth leg. "And I'm happy with the weight my horse is carrying. But I don't think the races in this series should be handicaps."
Racing, Nafzger says, is the only sport that penalizes its stars: "You don't see this scenario in the NFL: Bo Jackson scores a touchdown. Then he's brought over to the sidelines. He's told because he performed so well, he has to play the rest of the game wearing two-pound ankle weights."
Racing needs heroes to bring out the fans, Nafzger says, "and you don't create heroes by getting them beat."
He says his argument applies only to Grade I races, not the meat-and-potatoes handicaps that make up a portion of every track's stakes schedule. "Our Grade I's should be showcases, and there should only be five to 10 of them every year," he says.
Nafzger believes fans are coming out Saturday to see Summer Squall and Unbridled renew an intense rivalry against a bunch of new stars like Jolie's Halo and Farma Way.
"They're not coming to see how much weight they can carry," he says. "I bet half the fans don't even know what the weight is."
If this sounds like blasphemy, none other than Wayne Lukas agrees with Nafzger. "He's right," Lukas says. "In races like this, the racing secretaries [who assign the weights at individual tracks] should be kept out of it. The horses should sort themselves out and carry weight according to how much money they've won. There are always going to be discrepancies with racing secretaries."
The weights for the Pimlico Special are assigned by Larry Abbundi, Pimlico's director of racing.
Lukas quickly adds, "The weights aren't even an issue here. All the major contenders are within a pound or two of each other and his weights are sort of like allowance conditions. But that's not going to happen at every track."
Nafzger says the airplane has changed the complexion of racing.
"Used to be you had a Kelso carrying 130 pounds, because he was stabled at a track, say, in the East," Nafzger said. "To get horses to run against him, you had to pile the weight on him. Horses didn't travel a lot then and they didn't ship cross-country in a couple days notice. You had to weight down the star to get local horses to run against him.
"Now, a horse gets good, you just put him on a plane and he runs anywhere. Look at the Special. They come from all over. You can get a quality field together without weighting down a dominant horse."
Abbundi agrees that might work with the current group, where there are four or five top horses. "But what's going to happen somewhere near the middle or end of the series if you wind up with one dominant horse?" Abbundi asks. "If the races were at equal weights, no one would want to run against that one horse. You'd have walkovers like Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward."
The solution, Abbundi says, may be some sort of compromise. Instead of the racing secretary at each of the 10 host tracks weighting each individual race, "you might have a panel of three racing secretaries weighting the horses in the West, and three secretaries weighting the horses in the East. That way, you'd get a consensus and you wouldn't put a lot of pressure on just one racing secretary."
Handicaps, Abbundi says, are designed to equalize the chances of all horses in a race. "And they've been around since Charlton Heston drove his first chariot in a race," he said.
Nafzger let it be known that he wasn't happy with the 124 pounds Unbridled carried in the Oaklawn Handicap, when he finished fifth, beaten six lengths on a wet track.
"I'm not going to criticize another racing secretary," Abbundi says, but he knocked two pounds off the horse for the Special. He added one pound to the Oaklawn winner, Festin, and dropped a pound each for Jolie's Halo and Farma Way, who also were beaten in that race.
"People don't know about weight shifts," Abbundi says. "You don't just have to pile two pounds on top of a horse to get the result you want. You can subtract a pound from one horse, and add a pound to another to create a weight shift. That way, you accomplish the same thing without just piling on the weight."
He acknowledges the days of the great weight-carriers like Forego and Kelso are long gone.