Horse racing has more than its fair share of weighty matters, including one that will take place on Saturday evening at Churchill Downs. Another appearance by reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan is the main story at the Louisville track, though the conditions of the race he'll be running in can generate some conversation on its own. Called the Firecracker, the $150,000 Grade 2 turf race is actually a handicap, making it the sort of contest that can usually generate a substantial amount of debate. Some in the industry find them needless and wonder why racing would want to create conditions under which its biggest stars can fail. Others believe they add interest and appeal to races that might otherwise be yawners. The truth might rest somewhere in the middle, yet on the whole the good outweighs the bad. Saturday's race illustrates part of the reason why.
Wise Dan will most likely win the Firecracker. Yet because of the weight he will be conceding to his rivals, there's at least a reason for doubt. Against Saturday's seven rivals -- none of which have won more than a Grade 3 stakes -- Wise Dan would seem a cinch at level weights. But with 128 pounds on his back -- a modest burden compared to what past stars like Forego and Kelso carried in some of their famed handicap races -- and his foes toting between 11 and 15 pounds less, there's a plausible reason to believe someone can surprise him. Thanks to that sliver of doubt sparked by the weights, the Firecracker becomes a more competitive race than it should be. It's also a more inviting spot for a wager, and let's not forget it's betting that propels the sport. Beyond that, handicaps can create the kind of competition that the sport is hard-pressed to sustain. Who needs a handicap when you have Affirmed and Alydar on the same racetrack? But when a Horse of the Year like Wise Dan, with five straight Grade 1 wins, faces his most formidable rival in Lea, who was just a Grade 3 winner last year at three, help is needed to generate some excitement. Handicap races also fit in well with the fabric of the sport. Unlike a professional sport in which championships are decided by winning a final game, horse racing's champions are crowned by voters who have their own individual criteria for choosing one horse over another. In the eyes of some of those voters, there could be a moral victory in losing under extreme handicap conditions. Reputations can also be enhanced in defeat when a great challenge is accepted in a sporting manner. The Firecracker might not fall into the category of a supreme test, but when you consider the alternative -- a smaller and more overmatched field without the spread in weights -- it at least offers enough intrigue to merit close attention on Saturday. Let's just say, in many ways it's a race that will be well worth the "weight."
Wise Dan will most likely win the Firecracker. Yet because of the weight he will be conceding to his rivals, there's at least a reason for doubt.