Aye or nay? Weight allowances in Kentucky Derby qualifiers

Aye or nay? Weight allowances in Kentucky Derby qualifiers
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

The issue of a horse’s impost, or weight carried in a race, is one that receives relatively scant discussion among handicappers and horsemen as compared with decades past.

This change is because of a variety of factors, the most notable being the drastic reduction in handicap races in North America. However, it is about this time of year when you hear the weight topic broached with regard to allowances in qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

Most notably, are they fair? In theory, even the smallest of margins can potentially cost you the precious points needed to qualify for the classic.

Trainer Kenny McPeek contemplated just that topic recently via social media. He noted that in Saturday’s Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn, the top four finishers each carried five fewer pounds than the three horses immediately behind.

With similar results occurring in other qualifiers for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, McPeek felt the practice at least merited further discussion.

“In these points races, sometimes the difference from first to fifth is minimal, and that could possibly be the difference,” McPeek told Horse Racing Nation on Wednesday. “And ultimately, the races you’re getting points for are both run at equal weights.”

Setting the conditions

Every male starter in the Kentucky Derby carries 126 pounds, while fillies receive a five-pound weight break. In the Oaks, each starter carries 121 pounds.

“Let me be clear. I am not complaining, and I’m not using this as any kind of excuse. It’s not an excuse for the performance of any horse I’ve ever had,” McPeek continued. “But I do think it’s probably something that needs to be looked at, that these races should be run at equal weights.”

Weight assignments for Kentucky Derby preps are set by the conditions of the race as written by the host track. Churchill Downs spokesman Darren Rogers reiterated that point to HRN this week, noting, “we have left the option of weight allowances up to the host tracks.”

This week, there are three Derby preps worth 85 points apiece, and all have weight allowances. But in the final round of North American preps, which are worth a total of 170 points, all but the Arkansas Derby (G1) are run at level weights.

In Saturday’s Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park, which is worth 85 Derby points, up to a five-pound weight break is possible. The conditions of the race allows three pounds for non-winners of a graded stakes at a mile or more and five pounds for non-winners of a stakes race or a race at a mile or over other than maiden, claiming, starter or state-bred.

McPeek’s Rattle N Roll, a Grade 1 winner last year, was assigned the high weight of 123 pounds in the Fountain of Youth. He will be spotting as much as five pounds to the field.

“It just seems like it makes more sense to run these at equal weights,” McPeek said.

Related: 12 Derby prospects are set for the Fountain of Youth.

Mike Lakow, director of racing at Gulfstream, said he had spoken with McPeek about the Fountain of Youth specifically and said, “I think there is a point to equal weights.” However, Lakow pointed out that a racing office must balance potential field size and competitiveness for gamblers.

“I always think the best horse should win and that weight should not take a role in the outcome of a race,” Lakow told HRN. “I’d also like to see all Grade 1s be equal weights. But with that said, we’re trying to get field size and for these races to be competitive for the (horse) players.”

Weighty matter

How weight ultimately affects the outcome of a race is open to interpretation. As for McPeek, the rule of thumb he was taught as a young horseman was that each pound equates to roughly one-third of a length.

That quantification of weight’s impact is also in line with what is calculated as part of the well-respected performance figures produced by the Ragozin Sheets.

Jake Haddad, co-owner of The Sheets, said that in the Ragozin ratings system, five pounds equal one point. In dirt routes, such as with Kentucky Derby preps, one point equals about 1 1/2 lengths.

“When you’re handicapping, you have to take that into consideration,” Haddad said. He also pointed out when The Sheets' deceased founder Len Ragozin owned horses decades ago, he would “always ride” an apprentice jockey, or bug, to get a lighter weight.

“Everyone would laugh, ‘Why are you riding the bug? They’re not experienced,’ ” Haddad said. “But they were getting seven and five pounds and cleaning up. Some people say weight doesn’t matter, but every pound matters.”

For his part, Haddad believes weight allowances should be eliminated in Derby preps.

“I don’t think there should be. They all run at equal weights in the Derby, unless there is a filly of course, so the prep races should be equal weights as well,” he said.

In Saturday’s Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct, Nashua (G3) winner Rockefeller will carry the high weight of 123 pounds for trainer Bob Baffert. He will be spotting five pounds to each of his rivals except for Morello, who carries 120 pounds.

In the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita, stakes winner Cabo Spirit carries the high weight of 122 pounds. The rest of the field has imposts of 120 pounds each.

Also Saturday, the Battaglia Memorial over the synthetic track at Turfway Park awards 17 Derby points with 10 going to the winner. Assigned the co-high weight of 124 pounds were McPeek’s Tiz The Bomb and Bill Mott’s Erase, each of whom will carry six pounds more than the rest of the field. 

“Change can be hard,” McPeek said, “but giving weight in a points race, I don't know if that makes sense or not.”

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