View From The Eighth Pole: Weighty Issues On The Derby Trail?

by | 02.05.2018 | 2:14pm
Avery Island carried 122 pounds while winning the Withers

Kiaran McLaughlin sat in the Gulfstream Park parade ring late Saturday afternoon, soaking in the success of the previous half-hour. Godolphin Racing's Avery Island had made a successful 2018 debut at Aqueduct, winning the Grade 3 Withers by two lengths. Victory gave the son of Street Sense 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. A few minutes later, Take Charge Paula – a Take Charge Indy filly that only recently entered the native Kentuckian's barn via private purchase – scampered to a 3 1/2-length win in the G3 Forward Gal Stakes. She earned 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Oaks for her owner, Peter Deutsch.

Circling the Gulfstream Park ring was McLaughlin's G2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner Enticed, a colt by Medaglia d'Oro out of the multiple Grade 1 winner It's Tricky. The Godolphin runner was the 9-5 favorite in the G3 Holy Bull. Victory here would be worth 10 Kentucky Derby points.

Ten points is not going to get a horse into the Kentucky Derby's 20-horse starting field – somewhere between 30 and 40 usually does the trick. But those 10 points – even the four points for finishing second – can make the difference between an attempt at the Run for the Roses and being on the outside looking in.

Enticed, as one of two graded stakes winners in the Holy Bull field, was carrying 122 pounds, six more than the rest of the field was assigned under the allowance conditions of the race.

In the Withers, Avery Island also carried 122, giving weight to all but one of his rivals – G1 Champagne winner Firenze Fire.

In the Kentucky Derby, all of the 3-year-old colts and geldings carry 126 pounds. On the road to the Derby, however, many of the races are run under allowance conditions that punish success. McLaughlin would like to see that changed.

“Shouldn't all these points races be equal weights?” he asked. ”I didn't get any points for it, but I get punished for (Avery Island) winning the Nashua (a G2 race at Aqueduct in November that isn't on the official Road to the Kentucky Derby).

Enticed went out and ran a clunker, finishing fourth and earning a single Kentucky Derby point. Along with two points earned for finishing third in the Champagne and 10 for the Kentucky Jockey Club win, Enticed now sits in ninth place, with 13 points. Avery Island, who previously earned four points for a second in the G2 Remsen, is just above Enticed with 14.

They'll need to do more – especially when the races with 50 and then 100 points to the winners begin – but every point matters when you've got designs on the Kentucky Derby.

Audible, the Holy Bull winner, is a New York-bred by Into Mischief who was trying stakes company for the first time and carrying just 116 pounds. Getting a perfect trip under Javier Castellano, the Todd Pletcher trainee turned back a challenge from G1 Breeders' Futurity winner Free Drop Billy at the top of the stretch, then drew off easily to win by 5 ½ lengths for the partnership of WinStar Farm, SF Bloodstock and the China Horse Club.

This begs the question: Does weight really matter?

Yes, it does, though it didn't determine the outcome of the Holy Bull.

The rule of thumb used by some racing secretaries is that two pounds equals as much as one length going around two turns, so it would have taken a lot more than six additional pounds to prevent Audible from winning the Holy Bull.

But McLaughlin has a valid point. The Kentucky Derby point system is designed to get the best 20 horses into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Allowance conditions in a number of the Kentucky Derby point races are designed to entice as many starters as possible by tilting the playing field in favor of those that have accomplished the least – allowing them to carry less weight.

That just doesn't make sense.

The Lasix security blanket

In the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational in 2017, track owner and horseman Frank Stronach introduced a reward in the form of a five-pound weight break for those horses that would race without the anti-bleeding diuretic Lasix. Only one horse – longshot Eragon from Argentina – raced without the “L” next to its name in the program. Eragon was brought to the Pegasus by Jim McIngvale and his sister-in-law trainer Laura Wohlers. McIngvale raced sprint champion Runhappy without the benefit of race-day medication.

Eragon, sent off at 82-1 odds, was eased after trailing throughout while hopelessly overmatched.

For the 2018 running of the $16-million Pegasus, conditions were changed to increased the weight break to seven pounds for those competing without race-day Lasix.

There were zero takers this time around.

Seven pounds is not inconsequential going a mile and an eighth. Using the aforementioned racing secretary formula of two pounds per length, a seven-pound weight break certainly could have put runner-up West Coast – beaten 2 ½ lengths by favored Gun Runner – much closer at the finish.

The difference between first and second place was $5.4 million.

It would have been a calculated gamble for trainer Bob Baffert and owners Gary and Mary West – or any participants in the Pegasus for that matter – to race without the security blanket that Lasix provides. Gun Runner raced without it when second to Arrogate in the 2017 Dubai World Cup and West Coast will race Lasix-free if his connections opt to run in Dubai this year. They have no choice in the matter, since race-day medication is prohibited in Dubai, as well as in Europe, Asia, Australia and an increasing number of South American races.

There was a time, not that long ago, when top horses in the United States raced without Lasix, too. And they didn't get a seven-pound weight break.

Breeders' Cup Derby: Just say ‘no'

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about a proposal from within the Breeders' Cup board of directors for a fairly radical change in the championship program: adding a Breeders' Cup Derby for 3-year-olds and separating the Breeders' Cup Classic from championship weekend, running it in December in hopes of getting the BC Derby winner and the best older horses. The Daily Racing Form subsequently reported another proposed change: moving the entire Breeders' Cup to early December, where its Saturday races would not go up against college football.

We polled our readers and they came back with a resounding “no” to both ideas. Only 3.4 percent of the 2,200 total votes liked the BC Derby and 6.5 percent thought moving the Breeders' Cup championships to December was a good move. Forty-one percent actually wanted to return to a one-day Breeders' Cup (it was last run over one day in 2006), while 49 percent said they preferred the status quo.

Getting 90 percent of people in the horse business to agree on anything – the day of the week, the color of the sky, whether the sun sets in the west – is nearly impossible. When 90 percent of them say you've got a bad idea, it's time to move on.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

  • Bryan Langlois

    Maybe no BC Derby this year…but looks like a new Juvenille Turf Sprint for 1 Million will be run. Saw the press release for that one.

    The weight issue is an interesting one…and will be curious to see if enough horseman complain that CD eventually says to be a race in our points series every one must be at equal weights based on the point values of the races.

  • CEOmike

    The problem Ray with your logic is it is mainly ad hominin, the fact I say it makes it true. There is zero evidence the weight difference of even 6 pounds makes any difference to race outcomes.

    “Does weight really matter? Yes, it does, though it didn’t determine the outcome of the Holy Bull.
    The rule of thumb used by some racing secretaries..” ad homimem

    You then even go on to argue against your own premise. Gun Runner did not take the 7 pounds because 7 pounds is nothing when compared to Lasix. Does Lasix give a 14 length advantage, maybe, but probably a lot less, I would guess maybe 5 or less. So 7 pounds gives even less of an advantage. That is why no one took the bait in the Pegasus.

    Say you add to Torrey Smith 1 pound, about the same percentage of athletic weight as 5 pounds to a 1200 pound horse, does it make a difference and Smith can’t shake coverage, I think not.

    • Tinky


      There are mountains of evidence supporting Ray’s contention. The entire British handicap system is based on how weight affects performance.

      Also, I don’t think that you understand the meaning of “ad hominem”.

      • CEOmike

        Again, because you state it it does not make it true – and while the British handicap system may be based on it does not prove or even confirm it is a valid premise.

        As your argument is ad hominem maybe I am not the one who does not understand it.

        Please post one study or any research at all that shows weights allocated to race horses affect performance results.

        It does not even make common sense, take 1 pound of anything and put it in your pocket and tell me if you even notice it. A good bowel movement will change your weight by 1 pound.

        • Tinky

          Hoo boy.

          If you want to argue about the degree to which weight impacts horses, or point out that there are many other variables to consider, I wouldn’t have said a word. But to suggest that it makes no difference at all is to ignore massive amounts of data in the form of handicap races which have been run tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of times around around the world.

          Thoroughbred racing originated in England, and the handicap system has been used successfully there for over 100 years. It is ludicrous to suggest that such a system has been in place and used for so long on the basis of a faulty premise.

          • Tom

            Tinky is right!

          • CEOmike

            While I keep threatening to leave racing because of the constant drip drip of doping, fixing and other things that stink, the respectful and polite comments of the many boards keep me coming back. In other sports or news Your comment would have been something like “up your” you blank.

            Thank you!

            Tinky is wrong.

          • Michael Castellano

            You said: “Over the distance of a horse race the expenditure of extra potential energy of 5 pounds may account for less than a fraction of an inch. If you know physics you could see this with a hypothetical equation.”

            A figure which you made up, of course, claiming a knowledge of physics. Exactly who has conducted a trial to support this claim, and how was the study validated? Common sense, which you do not seem to have, says that horses, like any creature that has to carry or pull weights, might have sharply different abilities. I don’t see any way in real life racing that it can be determined “x” amount of weight” equals “y” amount of loss. If weight was so unimportant, why do jockeys have to keep their weights at skin and bones levels? Even the trotters no longer have 200 pound drivers, like they often had in the 60s. I suspect that weight has the most effect when a horse is checked in a race, and then has to resume full stride. Simply impossible to quantify except to acknowledge it as a factor.

            You also said “If this was true trainers would put their horses in vans before a race and drive them around town for a few hours.” Very silly, they have plenty of easier ways of reducing a horse’s weight, if they want to do something like that. Reduction of weight has to be weighed against loss of strength and endurance. It’s not the same as weight carried in its effects.

          • Lost In The Fog – Robert Lee

            “If you want to argue about the degree to which weight impacts horses, or point out that there are many other variables to consider, I wouldn’t have said a word. But to suggest that it makes no difference at all is to ignore massive amounts of data in the form of handicap races which have been run tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of times around around the world.”

            Not to mention that CEOmike’s argument that weight makes no difference also defies the basic laws of Newtonian physics.

          • CEOmike

            A drop of oil in a cup is significant, A top of oil in a swimming pool is not.

          • CEOmike

            Actually, there have been four scientific studies on the affect of weight on race horses. The results of three show ZERO difference in results. The fourth was interesting in that it compared weights to betting results instead of just wins and placings. It showed an increasing ROI to decreasing weights. The conclusion was a stretch though, that weights matter, because it added an untested variable, the bettor. Bettors might discount horses with lower weights as being less likely to win, therefore increasing payouts.

          • Michael Castellano

            I remember watching many of the big races back in the 60s and 70s, when they applied weights in handicap races much more liberally. It seemed to effect some horses a lot more than others. There were a number of top horses that could carry tremendous weight much better than others. Dr. Fager comes to mind, even an astounding 139 pounds could not get him defeated in one race. Then there were races in which the horses had more or less equal abilities, in which a few pounds difference seemed to make a difference. I would guess that weight carrying abilities also relate to the physical strength and endurance of a horse, and over a mile and a quarter distance can’t help but make a difference. Hard to quantify as any given race is different in the way it’s run. Breaking a horse’s momentum while carrying a lot of weight was always believed to make weight difference much more important, and was something to be avoided if at all possible.

          • CEOmike

            And that was a good field where he won by 12 lengths with a hand ride.

        • Quinnbt

          Just some thoughts on weight.
          Simple physics teaches that it takes x amount of energy to move an object a certain distance, thus less weight carried translates to less energy required which equates to more speed.

          Many horses will lose weight when transported whether by van or plane. That might explain some horses running outstanding races when shipping. As an example take Baffert shipping to Oaklawn from Santa Anita, remember they are in a van on a plane then in a van again and sometimes will lose thirty pounds or more just from the stress of travel. Even if they gain back 3 or 4 pounds per day they are still 18 or 20 pounds lighter overall.

          • CEOmike

            If this was true trainers would put their horses in vans before a race and drive them around town for a few hours. Besides why horses ship is usually because they have a better chance at a bigger purse,

            In your same physics illustration, the total potential energy in a horse is used in only a very small amount of the total to move the jockey with him. Adding a few pounds requires an insignificant amount more.

            Over the distance of a horse race the expenditure of extra potential energy of 5 pounds may account for less than a fraction of an inch. If you know physics you could see this with a hypothetical equation.

          • Quinnbt

            The horses that fly from California leave their barn pre dawn on a van to the airport and from Santa Anita to the Ontario airport is approximately 40 minutes.The flight is 5 hours and that is non-stop. Little Rock airport is where horse transport planes land in Arkansas, it is another hour to Oaklawn in Hot Springs. The trip I was referencing is around 9 hours, not around town for a few hours.

          • CEOmike

            Ok trainers would drive them around town for 9 hours.

          • katwalk

            That’s because whatever actual loss of weight that is directly related to the shipping may also have an effect (that is not being measured) on other aspects of the horse, in particular their state of mind. Tension is a very real drain on mental/musculature capabilities. Some horses travel better than others (and obviously “travel better” can encompass other issues as well).

            As to weight not affecting performance, you are clearly not a “foot/leg driven” athlete, you’d be amazed at the difference weight of your shoes can make to your performance. . . and shoe manufacturers know it, it’s measured in ounces (relative, of course).

            I suspect most people here are referring to “force” –
            Curious how you calibrate “potential energy” to a horse’s capabilities? And the fact that you use the term “potential” is revealing. . . .

          • CEOmike

            Potential energy is the energy available, so an object expends the potential energy. For example, your car has the potential energy to propel it 200 miles at 60 mph in 3 hours and 20 minutes. If you say double its weight you will get either less distance or less speed for the same potential energy. But if you add even 400 pounds it will make almost no difference to the use of potential energy. Just like a horse, it has the potential energy to use

          • katwalk

            Sir, you are in the wrong end of the pool.

          • CEOmike

            Sorry but there are four scientific studies on this topic that back up my premise of zero measurable effect.

            And I like this board because people generally refrain from personal attacks, but adding “with all due respect” and then following with a disrespectful attack is simply ignorance of english and the refined rules of debate. So I will over look the personal attack because we all slip occasionally.

            Please explain what you mean about the inertia argument applied to a horse, because what you seem to be trying to discuss is the physics concept of force being the product of speed and weight.

          • Judoon

            A personal attack is calling someone a name, swearing at them, etc. Saying you think someone is wrong is an opinion, not a personal attack.

        • gus stewart

          speaking of bowel. movements when I am having problems having one., I just read some of the ideas, or lack of contemporary ideas from the brains who run and are still burying this sport and that takes care my problem right down the toilet!.

      • louisville race fan

        if you dont think weight matters i was in ryan prices kitchen in the early 70s and the captain was giving tony murray a “talking to” about a horse winning by too many because the handicapper would put to much weight on next time …if you had heard what i heard you would know about weight

        • Tinky

          I suspect that you responded to the wrong person…

        • Lehane

          Agree….weight matters heaps. Not unusual for a jockey to respond to stewards’ questions when asked why in-form horse did not come up to expectations……. “the increase in weight” and “she’s a small filly to be carrying such a big weight”. I have never been able to come to terms with horses having to carry lead bags under the saddle to comply with a weight impost.

  • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

    Well cut back the Linguini that the Jockey and the Horse eats
    Step two cut back the field from 20 to 10 or 12 for the Run for the Roses
    That would solve everything

    • Neigh Sayer

      The discussion is about weight allowances. All horses in the Derby carry 126, and how is cutting the field in half solve any weight problem.

      • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

        The collective weight of the field will be much kinder and gentler to the racecourse. Less potholes and cracks to fix

        • Neigh Sayer

          Well that part makes sense, especially just after the spring thaw.

          • Lefty_Orioles_Fan


  • Michael Castellano

    “For the 2018 running of the $16-million Pegasus, conditions were changed to increased the weight break to seven pounds for those competing without race-day Lasix. There were zero takers this time around.”

    Pretty good evidence that Lasix is widely viewed as a performance enhancer. As a seven pound weight allowance is a pretty significant advantage to ignore.

  • Dave Stevenson

    historically the estimation has always been a pound a length over a mile.
    can understand Kieran’s point but you would never fill the races. weight for age is reserved for the classic or breeders’ races. there is a variety of change due to development, accomplishment and foaling date that has been taken into account for a century. when we tamper with established rules on a whim we place our knee-jerk logic in the way of our historic development of pedigree. weight off for lasix and other concoctions might sound good but most trainers understand that lasix is an established PED and a distinct advantage to the user thanx to the seriousness of the olympics and sports medicine. we just have to have the courage to implement what is proven.

  • Peter Scarnati

    It’s bad enough that Churchill gets to hand-pick the races for their point system. It would be truly absurd to allow them to also write the conditions under which those races are run. That should be left to the racing secretary of the track where the race is run and no one else.

    • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

      Maybe that is what it is, Churchill Downs wants to squeeze 20 horse comfortably onto their track. So they can’t have chubby horses or jockeys on Derby Day

  • FastBernieB

    I don’t know who first said it but “enough weight can stop a train.” An ambitious scientist could quantify this if he / she wanted to. It just isn’t possible to do the same with a racehorse because of the number of variables beyond any semblance of control.
    Based on my limited athletic past, I know I could skate faster and longer when I wasn’t wearing hockey equipment. There is no doubt in my mind that adding enough weight will slow down any living animal. How much weight it takes to cause an individual horse to lose 1 length over one mile will never be able to be determined accurately regardless of the state to which technology develops. Individual differences are just one of the many intervening variables that make this impossible

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