Free Handicap Needs More Experimentation

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TwinSpires Staff

January 30th, 2015

The Jockey Club released its 2014 Experimental Free Handicap on Thursday. Essentially, it’s four racing secretaries (P.J. Campo, Ben Huffman, Martin Panza, and Thomas Robbins) who compile weights for a mythical race for two-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles with the weights serving as a way to express the merits of the top juveniles in training.

In case you’re wondering, California Chrome was NOT one of the 107 two-year-olds of 2013 who were included on last year’s Experimental Free Handicap. Meanwhile, All Cash, a 0-for-7 maiden, with no second place finishes to his credit either, was a member last years Experimental Free Handicap.

Why? Because to make last year’s edition, a two-year-old of 2013 had to have started in either a graded stakes or a listed stakes against open competition and finished in the top four.

California Chrome won a pair of stakes for California breds as a two-year-old, including a dazzling win in the $200,000 King Glorious Stakes by more than six lengths, but he had no top four finishes in stakes against open competition, so he was ineligible by last year’s rules. Meanwhile, Alpine Luck, a horse who finished more than 20 lengths behind California Chrome in that King Glorious Stakes, managed to land on the list. In the case of All Cash, he managed to clunk up for a fourth place finish in an open stakes race, and that was good enough for him to merit inclusion.

Indeed, the eligibility requirements for inclusion in The Experimental Free Handicap were changed this year. Now, in order to be eligible for weighting, a two-year-old must simply have started in a Graded or listed stakes race run in the continental United States. California Chrome would have met those requirements, as he finished sixth (beaten only 2 lengths) in the Del Mar Futurity.

In my opinion, if they want to bring more credibility to this list, The Jockey Club should include all exceptional restricted stakes winners. Smarty Jones and Funny Cide were both undefeated stakes winners at age two, and wouldn’t have made this year’s list even with the relaxed rules.

In the case of Smarty Jones, he won the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes by 15 lengths. That performance earned him a gigantic 112 Speed Rating and an impressive 105 Beyer Speed Figure. How sensational were those speed figures? By comparison, eventual champion Action This Day ran just a 100 Speed and a 92 Beyer when winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that same season.

In the case of Funny Cide, he was a perfect 3-for-3 as a juvenile, including a dazzling performance when he won the B. F. Bongard stakes by 9 lengths. That effort earned Funny Cide a 105 Speed Rating and a 103 Beyer. By comparison, eventual champion Vindication won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that season with a Speed Rating of 100 and a Beyer figure of 102.

In plain English, Guidelines for inclusion were changed this year, in order to prevent a California Chrome exclusion scenario from happening again. However, to not have brilliant juvenile performers like Smarty Jones or Funny Cide listed among the hundred or so best of their respective crops, is a total farce.

In fact, not only should exceptional restricted stakes winners be worthy of inclusion, but so should exceptional Maiden performers. Let’s take a look at Om, for instance. On August 9 at Del Mar, Om won a Maiden Special Weight race going 6 ½ furlongs by a widening 7 ¼ lengths. The performance earned a 98 Speed Rating and a 98 Beyer. Not only that, but the horses Om dusted all came back to flatter him tremendously. American Pharaoh, Calculator, and Iron Fist came out of that race to sweep the trifecta in the Del Mar Futurity just four weeks later. Two other horses that Om buried in that Maiden race, Daddy DT (116 pounds) and One Lucky Dane (104 pounds) both are rated, even though they both only have a single career win to their name.

In 2005, Discreet Cat won his career debut at Saratoga with an eye-popping 109 Speed Rating and a dazzling 106 Beyer. He was purchased privately by Godolphin and never started again as a juvenile. Logically, Discreet Cat would have been more worthy for inclusion than a horse from that crop like Value Fund, who managed eligibility by winning a Maiden Claiming race and finishing fourth in a six horse field in the Eddy County Stakes at Zia Park in his only career stakes attempt.

Poor old Value Fund ended his juvenile campaign with a seventh-place finish in an entry-level allowance race at Louisiana Downs. He finished off his racing career on July 22 of his 4-year-old season, while competing in a $5,000 condition claiming races at Mountaineer.

The reality of modern racing is that sensational juvenile maiden winners, the likes of which fairly recently include Om, Discreet Cat, Big Brown, Ghostzapper, and Royal Delta deserve more consideration than horses who clunk up for fourth in a some listed stakes race.

What’s more, as long as this list keeps “Experimental” in its name, there’s absolutely no reason not to continue to tinker with the guidelines until you have a formula for rating that sensibly represents modern horse racing. It wasn’t long ago, that the ratings were meant to reflect a hypothetical race for two-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on dirt. That’s yet another thing that’s been changed fairly recently. Seeing only the two high-weights rated higher than Hootenanny, is dramatic evidence of that.

Here’s a history lesson: on March 26, 1921, the great Jockey Club handicapper Walter Vosburgh released the first ever “Experimental Free Handicap” -- as you can see from the Daily Racing Form headline below.

In his column, Vosburgh wrote: “It’s often been suggested that I make a similar Free Handicap, not for the purpose of a race, but a rating of the two-year-olds of the year, publishing it after the close of the season’s racing. I have been reluctant to do so, believing that there could be little of value to anyone in such a compilation, and, because people in this country, being unused to the custom, might be misled into the belief that I put it forth as my estimate of what I believe the colts would do as three-year-olds. However, at the close of the racing season of 1920 I compiled the list presented below.

“The Experimental Handicap then, is presented as a memorandum of the form of the two-year-olds of 1920”

Reading Vosburgh’s column, it certainly felt as though he was persuaded into doing an American version of England’s “Free Handicap.” In fact, Vosburgh would do one more in 1921 and scrap the practice until restarting it again in 1933, which was his final year as the Jockey Club Handicapper.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, American Pharaoh and Texas Red shared high-weight status at 126 pounds in this year’s edition of the Experimental Free Handicap. But, more importantly, more experimentation is required by the Jockey Club if they wish to make the Free Handicap a more credible guide that better represents the realities of juvenile racing, as we know it today.