Woodward result leaves some players jaded, raises weighty issues

September 5th, 2016

Despite an awkward beginning, a weight discrepency, and, according to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, a trip measuring 40 feet longer than Shaman Ghost's, I doubt I'm alone in thinking Frosted still managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Saturday's Woodward (G1) at Saratoga.

Much of the incredulity showed by observers immediately after the race were based on the actions, or rather inactions, of jockey Joel Rosario, who pointedly refused to encourage the colt with the whip to show a little bit more when mere inches separated Frosted's nose from the lead. What appeared at first glance to be a cocky, overconfident ride resulted in a loss by a head as an overwhelming 2-5 favorite.

"He doesn't like the whip so that's why he didn't hit him," McLaughlin said on Sunday. "A lot of people were probably wondering why, but he doesn't like the whip."

I'm certainly no advocate for a massive flogging, either to achieve victory or trying to get more out of a horse when he has no more to give. I also understand the tendency of some horses to sulk from the use of the whip.

However, let's imagine this was a bigger moment than the Woodward. Let's say, hypothetically, we're talking about a head-to-head duel between Frosted and California Chrome in the stretch of the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) or the $12 million Pegasus World Cup (G1). Are we to believe that with all the money on the line from purses and enhanced stud fees, and in the case of the Breeders' Cup a Horse of the Year title, that Rosario would absolutely not try anything more to win that photo other than employing hand-riding tactics?

This doesn't even begin to address the bettors' interest in the outcome of said races, both real and imaginary. Given his reputation for not always putting his best hoof forward, perhaps Frosted was too low a price in the Woodward. Nonetheless, those that heavily backed him in the win pool or used him as a single in various multi-race wagers surely felt as jaded as anyone by the result. Now, think about how much more negative the reaction would be if this situation occurred in, say, the Breeders' Cup, when the audience and handle will be several times higher.

While we're dancing around the fairness issue, McLaughlin on Sunday also raised the four-pound weight discrepency between Frosted and Shaman's Ghost and the six-pound difference between Frosted and runner-up Mubtaahij. That leads me to ask: What exactly compelled NYRA to change the Woodward from a weight-for-age event to allowance weights in 2014?

Under the system in place for much of the race's history, every horse in Saturday's Woodward would have carried 126 pounds. Instead, the Woodward is presently run under allowance weights, which is basically a de jure handicap, the kind of race most high-profile horsemen have successfully lobbied to eliminate, with a few notable exceptions, over the last couple decades.

As a proponent of handicaps, I still don't see how weighting horses on an allowance scale is any less arbitrary and capricious, to use the description invoked by the anti-handicappers, than the system they once vociferously opposed. I've written about this here and here, and yet the perniciousness of it has yet to draw the ire of many horsemen or other racing observers. If handicaps are ultimately to go the way of the dodo, the absolute fairest thing would be for the Jockey Club Scale of Weights to be used for all graded stakes.

If the four-pound weight difference possibly had the kind of effect on the outcome of the Woodward that McLaughlin implied, it would seem right for the anti-allowance weight bandwagon to start growing.

(NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)