By Jude “Pontiff of the Pick Four” Feld
Venerable racing official Robert V. “Bobby” Weeks, was a familiar figure in the paddocks of Santa Anita Park, Del Mar and Hollywood Park from the 1960s until his death in 1992 at age 75. Among his many duties as paddock judge was to dispatch the horses to the track. Weeks will forever be remembered for his distinctive and throaty command, “Riiiiiiiiiiider’s up!”
His main focus as paddock judge was to keep track of the equipment worn by each horse in every race. He recorded it on specially printed cards, using notes he wrote on his official program. A former jockey, Weeks was an excellent horseman and knew more about racing than most people could ever hope.
One day in the Santa Anita racing office, when I was in the employ of the Daily Racing Form, Weeks lamented to me, “Blinkers on. Blinkers off. These guys can’t make up their minds. Look at this card. On. Off. On. Off. This horse is has got to be confused.”
Blinkers have had more than a little bit to say about the outcomes of a couple of Derby preps in the last fortnight. Hansen took them off and won the Gotham (G3) while Prospective put them on and captured the Tampa Bay Derby (G3).
Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal and are lateral-eyed, meaning that their eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads, allowing for close to a 350 degree range of monocular vision. This is life-saving in the wild, but it can create more than a few problems in racing.
Hansen had worn blinkers in all of his starts leading up to the Gotham (G3), including his front-running victory in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). His vision was focused to the front, which is where he liked to race, and going into the event, he had never passed a horse in his life.
In an effort to see if Hansen would rate, trainer Mike Maker decided to take the blinkers off for the Gotham (G3), allowing the colt his entire field of vision. The hope was to make Hansen less keen in the early stages of the race and more efficient in the stretch run.
It was a textbook move and it worked to perfection.
“He really took the step forward as far as maturing. He actually did it better than I expected – he was so relaxed,” said Hansen’s jockey Ramon Dominguez. “I was hoping that he could take the step forward, mind-wise, but he really took it further than I expected. Awesome. Galloped out like a freight train, too.”
Prospective had become a laggard in his recent races, falling back out of the gate and then making a sustained late run. He was a tad complacent about being a racehorse and trainer Mark Casse wanted him engaged earlier in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3).
“We put blinkers on to get him to focus a little more,” Casse said. “When we watched him in the Sam F. Davis, he was running down the backside the entire way with his head cocked and he was kind of looking at things. Luis (Contreras) said about the three-eighths pole of the Davis he was finished, and then when the horse came outside him he started running again. I said, (the blinkers) will get him a little closer in the early running, and it worked.”
Prospective broke running, stayed in the race and posted the most important victory of his career.
Trainer intent and running style are two very important factors in handicapping and often “blinkers on” or “blinkers off” can give the horseplayer a window into the conditioner’s thoughts and how the horse will be positioned in the race.
“Blinkers on” usually means more focus and improved early speed while “blinkers off” indicates a more relaxed running style and a stronger finish.
Pay attention to these equipment changes and they will pay dividends to you.
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