isn’t easy for a racing secretary to hang 128 pounds on a star horse in
a handicap race such as Saturday night’s $150,000 Firecracker Handicap
(Grade II), but Churchill Downs’
Director of Racing Ben Huffman relishes the opportunity.
“I did 128 (pounds) here with Wise Dan and 128 on Curlin
in the (2008) Stephen Foster,” Huffman said. “I’ve done several 125s,
but for horses that have actually shown up in the entries, 128 is the
Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, the world’s top ranked active runner in the latest Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, heads a field of eight entered for the Firecracker Handicap, one of three stakes races
to be run at Churchill Downs on Saturday as part of the “Downs After Dark Presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka” nighttime racing program.
Wise Dan, who was made the 2-5 favorite by Churchill Downs’ oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, will give between 11-15 pounds to his six rivals. The next high weights at 117 pounds are Grade III stakes winners Corporate Jungle
A handicap is a race where the racing
secretary assigns weights to all nominated horses with the theoretical
goal of creating a dead-heat at the finish.
“It’s a judgment call,” Huffman said.
“It’s not an exact science. Some people say a length is a pound and
others say a length is three pounds. A lot of components are involved in
assigning the weights.”
Wise Dan carries a six-race win
streak into the Firecracker, including five Grade I races. In his two
races of 2013, he won the Maker’s 46 Mile (GI) at Keeneland and the
Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI) at Churchill Downs
on Kentucky Derby Day.
“You also look to see who horses have
been running against and what they’ve carried in the past,” Huffman
said. “Wise Dan is a multiple Grade I winner, he’s the Horse of the Year
and he’s the highest-rated horse in training
in the world. He’s not running against horrible horses in here, but they
are inferior when compared to the best turf miler in the world. Not the
best turf miler in the United States…in the world.”
Some are of the opinion that handicap
races are a thing of the past and top horses should not be forced to
carry more weight in a race due to their previous accomplishments.
Huffman doesn’t subscribe to that belief.
“I know handicaps are kind of going
out of favor a little bit, but if you’re going to do them then I think
you ought to do them right,” Huffman said. “When you have champions
running here for equal weights, I personally don’t
think we could fill the races. I like doing handicaps for route races
and I think they serve a purpose. We don’t weight horses to get them
beat. We weight horses to give other horses a chance, especially against
Champions like Wise Dan have been
known to scare off other horses from entering, but Huffman believes it
is important to feature the best horses possible at the home of the
“We are Churchill Downs and we are in
a racing town with racing fans that love and appreciate horse racing,”
Huffman said. “Sometimes these champions cause us to have some short
fields, but I know true racing fans appreciate
Horses of the Year and Eclipse Champions racing in Louisville, Kentucky.
Who wouldn’t want to come out and see the Horse of the Year Wise Dan
and horses like Curlin and Rachel Alexandra and Royal Delta and Fort Larned? I’ll sacrifice a
couple of runners to get the best horses in the world here for our racing fans in Louisville.”
Wise Dan, who won the Firecracker in 2011 in his turf debut, will break from post two under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. A 6-year-old gelded son of Wiseman’s Ferry, Wise Dan is looking to become the first two-time
winner of the Firecracker.
The theme for Saturday’s Downs After
Dark program is “Star-Spangled Night” and fans are encouraged to dress
to impress in red, white and blue for Louisville’s largest pre-Fourth of
July holiday celebration. Gates open at 4
p.m. (all times Eastern) and post time for the first race is 6 p.m. The
Firecracker will go as Race 9 at 10:11 p.m.