The Experimental Free Handicap: A Retrospective Glance

The first Experimental Free Handicap was published by Walter Vosburgh, handicapper for The Jockey Club, ranking the 2-year-olds of 1933. This was something of an imitation of a custom well established in England, but the title indicated that it was not immediately set in stone that it would be an annual effort by The Jockey Club. Indeed, The Jockey Club published no such handicap for 1934, although Joe McCarthy compiled a similar listing as part of his racing coverage for the Morning Telegraph.

In 1935, John B. Campbell published the second Experimental Free Handicap in his role as Vosburgh’s successor at The Jockey Club, and it has been an annual exercise since then, although retaining the name “experimental.” Campbell was the handicapper famed for weighting the 1944 Carter Handicap with such delicate calibration that Brownie, Wait a Bit, and Bossuet came to the wire in a triple dead heat. 

Since the advent of the Suburban Handicap in 1884, handicap racing had enjoyed high prestige in American racing. For many years, the epicenter of handicap racing was the New York Handicap Triple Crown, comprises the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn handicaps. These races were a frequent target of a crop’s top 3-year-olds when they graduated to the handicap ranks at 4. Only Whisk Broom II (1913), Tom Fool (1953), Kelso (1961), and Fit to Fight (1984) have swept all three, but by the time of Fit to Fight, the luster of the handicap division was tarnished enough that he was not even the older male champion of the year.

In the glory days of American handicap racing, it was possible for a racing secretary to establish a status as a defender of the best sporting impulses engendered by the Turf, as well as turning out daily cards. A racing secretary who stood his ground and gave a champion the weight he thought he/she deserved — even in the face of lamenting trainers — might be seen as a potent shaper of the sport. Handicaps also brought out the best in sporting owners, such as Alfred Vanderbilt, who accepted weights above 140 for his 1930s handicap champion Discovery, plus the Whitneys and Phippses, who ran horses such as Tom Fool and Bold Ruler under 136 pounds in the 1950s, and Allaire du Pont and Martha Gerry, who in the 1960s and 1970s campaigned Kelso and Forego, respectively, with equal bravery. Among many such owners, there was the attitude that a high weight was a honor earned by the horse, so it was proper to accept the challenge.

Thus, through the years that Campbell (1935-54), F. E. “Jimmy” Kilroe (1955-61), and Tommy Trotter (1961-71) had stints of compiling the Experimental Free Handicap, the end result could be seen as coming from the wisdom of something of a maestro in the art of weighting racehorses. The foal crops were small enough that it was practical to assess weights for 1 percent of the 2-year-olds.

From the beginning, when Vosburgh placed First Minstrel atop the first Free Handicap at 126 pounds, that weight has been the standard, or minimum, assignment for a top weight, reflecting an era when all handicap races in New York had at least that much for the top weights. 

There have been a few exceptions, most notably Count Fleet, which Campbell assigned 132 pounds in 1942. (The phenomenon that even great weight assigners were not always on the same page might be illustrated by Kenny Noe Jr., who had the task from 1972-75. Noe resisted the lure of Secretariat by giving him 128, only 2 pounds above the standard top weight, despite form so spectacular that he was Horse of the Year at age 2.)

Trotter returned to the helm to weight the Experimental on his own from 1976-78, by which time the task was so large that a three-man committee was named to produce the weights starting in 1979. 

Currently, the Experimental panel consists of P.J. Campo of Gulfstream Park, Ben Huffman of Churchill Downs and Keeneland, and Tom Robbins of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Experimental Vignettes

• The mindset of the handicappers apparently was not always consistent. Campbell must have consciously deviated from assessing the best 2-year-old performance to make the Experimental a predictor of 3-year-old form in 1936. He gave top rank of 126 to Brooklyn, off a win in the Walden Handicap and a promising second in the Pimlico Futurity. This campaign was pale compared to the Belmont Futurity victory and two other stakes wins by Pompoon (125), which was voted the champion that year on the first Daily Racing Form poll. (Brooklyn did not distinguish himself at 2, and Campbell’s attempt at prescience also took a hit when War Admiral emerged to win the Triple Crown after being assigned 121 pounds on the Experimental.)

• Pompoon was not the only voted champion that was not the high weight, or co-high weight, of his year’s Experimental, although the exceptions have been rare. In 1954, Nashua defeated Summer Tan in three of their four meetings at age 2 and was voted champion on both the Daily Racing Form and TRA polls. However, Handicapper Kilroe gave pride of place at 128 pounds to Summer Tan, which had concluded his year with a 14-length victory in the Garden State Stakes, with Nashua not in the field. The Garden State had burst onto the scene the previous year as the richest race in the world and, at 1 1/16 miles, occupied a status similar to that of today’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

• Another such instance came in 1963, when Trotter assigned Raise a Native as the Experimental top weight, whereas the Garden State winner, Hurry to Market, was the voted champion. Raise a Native had been brilliant early, but was retired due to injury by midsummer. For the most part, the Experimental top weight or co-top weight has also been the juvenile champion and often a winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

• For most of its history, the Experimental has been a “mythical” race imagined at 1 1/16 miles. However, for about a dozen years, it was an actual race, run at that distance in the spring following the crop’s turn to 3 years old. For a few years, there were two editions run. The first Experimental Free Handicap was run in 1940 and the last in 1952. The Experimental Free Handicap No. 2 was added in 1946 and also was run through 1952.

• The race had some distinguished winners. Assault won the Experimental No. 1 in 1946 en route to his Triple Crown. Olympia won both the Experimental Nos. 1 and 2 in 1949 and went into the Kentucky Derby as favorite after he also added the Wood Memorial and Derby Trial. (He finished sixth behind Ponder in the Derby, but went on to be a successful sire.)

• In 1950, Meadow Stable’s budding champion Hill Prince won the Experimental No. 1 prior to finishing second in the Derby and winning the Preakness.

• Famed trainer Woody Stephens would become best known for winning five consecutive Belmont Stakes (1982-86), but he had won his first classic, the 1952 Preakness, with Blue Man, whose preps had included a victory in the Experimental Free Handicap No. 2.

Edward L. Bowen is the president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the author of 19 books on Thoroughbred racing.

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