Man O’ War, known by his followers as Big Red, was undisputedly the first racehorse to captivate the nation. Though Big Red was defeated only once, the flaming chestnut maintained a figure of perfection to his last breath. As his fan base grew, so did the advantage his competitors had on him. In one race, horseracing’s first celebrity gave up thirty-two pounds to his opponents, and still showed them his heels. However, Man O’ War, never had the opportunity to run as a four year old and his record as an older horse will forever remain absent from the history books. Why did this happen?
Big Red’s owner, Samuel D. Riddle, sent his trainer, Lou Feustel, to ask Walter Vosburgh, a New York Racing Secretary, what weights he would assign his horse if he was to campaign the colt as a four year old. Without hesitation, Vosburgh informed Feustel, “Lou, I can’t tell you exactly what weight I’d put on him next year, but I’ll say this much – I wouldn’t start him in his first out at a pound less than 140.”* Upon hearing the news, Riddle said, “Retire him, he’ll never run again.”* Without hesitation, he chose to retire his legend that, in 1999, The Bloodhorse magazine would hail as “The Best Racehorse of the 20th Century”.
Our imagination is the place Man O’ War’s ‘unraced’ years can live; we can only dare to dream what he would have etched into horseracing’s history. I ask again, “Why did this happen?”
The horses in a handicap must carry a certain weight determined by the Racing secretary at that track in order to ‘level the playing field’. Handicaps were first introduced by Admiral Henry John Rous, who was appointed as a Jockey Club steward in 1838, maintaining that position for almost forty years until his death in 1877. Rous was appointed the public handicapper in 1855 where he introduced weight-for-age races; adding weight to the older horses as to give the younger, less experienced horse a ‘fair’ chance.
Handicapping’s supporters argue that it is only a true champion that can win under such conditions. While it is true that only a champion could overcome such challenges race after race, the question remains: “Why should they have to?”
Walter Vosburgh’s argument for handicaps is “If a horse has gone through his two – and three year old races successfully, he must at four give somebody else a chance. The principle is that he has demonstrated his superiority, and his owner has reaped a sufficient pecuniary reward, and should be content to carry the penalties or send him to the stud…”*
Horseracing is a sport – just like baseball, basketball, football, tennis, swimming, etcetera, etcetera. All these other sports reward the top performers, not penalize them. In baseball, football and basketball the team with the best record earns home-field/court advantage in the playoffs. In tennis, the top seeded players are matched against the lowest seeded players at the start of a tournament. This allows the best chance for the top players to meet at the championship match. Even in swimming, the fastest swimmer gets the best advantage by being assigned the center (fastest) lane in the pool, and the swimmers with the slower times will be in the outermost lanes. Michael Phelps will always be swimming in Lane Four or Five!
The politics of handicaps also play a role in the final judgment as to who gets assigned a certain weight. The simplest example would be that once a race secretary assigns a weight to a particular horse, the connections can manipulate the assigned weight by threatening to scratch their horse if an agreement cannot be met. In major races particularly, scratches can be quite costly to the track. Consequently, adjustments are made and the “science” of handicaps is blown out the window. The recent Blind Luck/Havre de Grace match-up in the Delaware Handicap would be good example of this point.
“My horse is faster than yours.” One person told another, centuries ago, and thus began the sport of horseracing. It has been long since the days when the races came down to that one simple fact.
The deeper I delve into the analysis of horseracing and pedigrees, the more skeptical I feel about the proclaimed victors. With my current knowledge and state of mind regarding horseracing, I respectfully, but strongly disagree with Mr. Vosburgh’s opinion regarding the use of handicaps.
A common argument made in defense of handicaps is that three year olds do not have a fair chance against a mature, seasoned older horse. I am compelled to ask you to contemplate the situation in the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics. Legendary twenty-seven year old, swimmer Michael Phelps will be returning to compete in next year’s games. Should Phelps be weighted because of his age and accomplishments, knowing there may be sixteen or eighteen year olds swimming against him in the same event? If the Olympic Committee attempted to penalize him, do you think he would continue to compete? This addresses my opening statement regarding Man O’ War’s retirement. What if the same rulings had applied to Michael Phelps before his historic performance in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games? No doubt, he would have had the same reaction that Mr. Riddle did with Man O’ War, and thus America would never have this unprecedented, historic event proudly gracing the record books.
The same theory would apply to males and females racing together. I am inspired by a filly or mare who gives the colts a run for their money. However, my inspiration fades as I begin to understand that the colts have been “held back” at the starting gate. If a filly has been allowed a five pound edge, it translates into a five length advantage before they have even left the gates. If the filly hasn’t reached the wire more than five lengths ahead of the colts, has she truly won the race?
I accept the fact that handicaps create a “good-for-business” atmosphere. That is not my concern. My concern is about the fairness and integrity of this sport I love. There are races that are not deemed handicaps, but are weight-for-age races; races where fillies automatically get the advantage due to their gender, therefore making it practically impossible to escape handicaps even in stakes races.
In researching this subject I found many phenomenal accomplishments of weighted horses. I also found an infinite number of “legendary” races, past and present, in which the outcomes would have been significantly different had every horse carried the same weight. Much to my frustration, there have been so many wonderful horses that were subject to heavier weights lost by a neck or less, being declared “beaten” and “losing their spark”.
It seems like a simple concept: gates open – fastest nose to the wire wins. Not so simple it seems.
“I will give everyone Super powers, that way nobody will be Super!” - The Incredibles
*From Dorothy Ours’ Man O’ War A Legend Like Lightning, pages 256 – 257.