By Jude “Pontiff of the Pick Four” Feld
Handicaps, races where the weights are assigned by the racing secretary in an effort to equalize the field, have been contested for centuries. They have somewhat gone out of fashion in American racing’s modern era, partially because of the reluctance trainers have to running their charges under high imposts and also because most of the Grade 1 races today are run under “weight-for-age” conditions.
There are still some great handicap races, like the Stephen Foster (G1) at Churchill Downs and, “the granddaddy of them all,” as Brent Musburger likes to say, the Santa Anita Handicap (G1).
By their very nature, handicaps are designed for horses with established form. Two-year-olds, three-year-olds and even four-year-olds early in the racing year run against their own age groups for the most part. When a horse turns five, he is in his prime, probably proved his soundness for racing and established his quality. It is then, that the racing secretary can evaluate him against his competition and assign a weight to him that will level the playing field with his competition.
The finest wine comes from grapes grown on old vines. Thoroughbreds are much the same. Today’s emphasis in American racing is on the three-year-old year, because the Kentucky Derby (G1) is the most coveted race in our country. Owners want instant gratification with their horses at two, a big three-year-old year and a lucrative stud contract at four. Other than geldings, racing a five, six or seven-year-old is only for the ultra-patient or the ultra-rich.
Last summer, trainer Mark Casse entered Pool Play in the Stephen Foster (G1). The son of Silver Deputy was making the 28th start of his life and was coming off a solid second-place finish in the Elkhorn (G2) at Keeneland. He had matured and gotten better with age, showing improving Beyer speed figures in his last eight starts. The public had settled their attention on the younger horses, whose names had been more prominent in the news recently, and they were ignoring this older campaigner, who was in prime form, at 36-1.
With a nice straight wager at $75.20 and the late pick four, I left the ‘Downs a very happy man.
Last Saturday, the 75th running of the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) was contested. Ron the Greek had been in the care of three different top trainers until the middle of his four-year-old season. Transferred to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott prior to Saratoga last summer, the son of Full Mandate blossomed in his five-year-old season, posting five improved Beyer speed figures in-a-row. He entered the Big ‘Cap off a solid second-place finish to the highly regarded Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic.
Four-year-old Ultimate Eagle was the public’s choice, a fast son of Mizzen Mast, who had just won Santa Anita’s Strub (G2) by seven lengths over his own age group. To make the value worse, here was a colt, not even four-years-old by the Gregorian calendar, giving weight to the entire field!
Ron the Greek paid $9.20 and keyed a nice $104 late daily double. In the words of Daily Racing Form columnist Marty McGee, “It’s an easy game.”
None of the five four-year-olds that raced in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) even earned a check, although Boxeur des Rues did finish sixth.
Unlike old dogs, you can teach old Thoroughbreds new tricks and remember when you are handicapping a handicap, “Old Guys Rule.”
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