The Argument Against a Handicap Stakes Race

I don’t think any avid horse racing fan can deny that Zenyatta is the most exciting thing to happen to the sport in recent years. I made sure to change my plans the day of this year’s Vanity Invitational Handicap so I could watch the race. I, like most other fans, was really pulling for her to win and run her undefeated streak to 17 – 0. As she came down the home stretch neck and neck with St. Trinians, I couldn’t help but think, “what would happen if she lost…”

As we know, she did end up pulling off the victory, surpassing the 16-race winning streaks of Cigar, 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation, and Mister Frisky. That trio all lost in their 17th races. Cigar was stopped at Del Mar in 1996, Citation was beaten at Santa Anita in 1950 and Mister Frisky lost in the 1990 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Zenyatta went off at 1-5, so we know the majority were betting on her to win. However, she was carrying 9 pounds extra in the Vanity. 9 Pounds!?! There’s some debate amongst handicappers how much extra weight equates to in distance, but the generally accepted principle is that 3 pounds of extra weight is equal to one length over 5 furlongs. The Vanity Invitational Handicap is a 9 furlong race, almost double that, and Zenyatta was carrying 9 pounds extra, three times the one length distance ratio. While it may not be possible to determine exactly how much extra distance she had to make up as a result of the added weight, it’s fair to say there were several extra lengths added.

Now I understand the need for special weight and handicap races, but the Vanity is a Grade I Stakes Race – a race that’s supposed to feature the best of the best. Should a Grade I Stakes race allow for weight disparity and other handicaps? If she had lost the race, is it really fair to say that the queen was unseated by St. Trinians? St. Trinians is a great horse, but she’s no Zenyatta. If she lost, it would have been the added weight and not St. Trinians that ended her reign.

In the end it didn’t matter because she was able to make up for the extra weight and win the race. I can’t help but wonder the ramifications if things had ended differently. I can’t help but feel that in a Grade I Stakes Race, all horses should be treated equal with no special weight differentials or handicaps provided to any other horse. After all, if the queen is to be unseated, it should be because she lost to a better horse, not because she was put at a disadvantage.

All eyes will be on Zenyatta as she prepares for her next race with a chance to go 18-0 with an eventual buildup to the Breeders Cup Classic. I’ll be pulling for her the whole way, but if fate has it that she should lose, let it be a fair loss to a horse that ran better.

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