The importance of weights as a major form instrument. for the greater part of racing's history, has never been a contentious issue. Weights have long been regarded as the cornerstone of successful ratings and form analysis.

The late Rem Plante's detailed inquiry some 40 years ago into the impact of weight in form evaluation was regarded as groundbreaking. It was this work that propelled his 60s publication, the Australian Horse Racing and Punters Guide still regarded as the first and possibly only punters' bible of Australian racing.

Plante's weight mandates have long held unwavering esteem amongst the nation's form students and have remained virtually unchallenged for decades. However, over recent years there has been a developing trend both here and abroad that not only challenges the merit of weights as a racing tool, but puts forward a well constructed case to completely disregard weights when doing form analysis!

Now, I'm sure that any suggestion to disregard one of racing's most time-honoured core values would be met with utter disdain by weight aficionados. It would seem presently that no other aspect of racing has form students in greater disagreement than the issue of weights and precisely where it sits in racing's pecking order.

In an effort to get some sort of definitive answer, even just for my own needs, I embarked on a passage of research into what has become one of racing's more questionable concerns. With some university assistance I've been able to unearth some thought provoking facts which, hopefully, will enable the reader to be a little more lucid on the issue of racing and weights.

In handicaps, weights are allotted to each runner with the aim to make the racing more even. Better performed horses are asked to carry heavier imposts than their under performing rivals, the theory being that the heavier weights will have some degree of a slowing effect, thus enhancing the winning chances of lower weighted animals.

Race club handicappers allot weight to the respective racerunners with the assumption that all runners through the weight frame have an equitable chance of winning. Ideally, with a perfect handicap (!), all runners would finish in a dead heat. The practicality of the situation is somewhat different. Statistically the heavier weighted horses win a highly disproportionate share of the races.

This is a constant that encompasses racing not only in this country but also worldwide. What should we derive from this? Maybe handicappers are too lenient on the better-performed horses or perhaps the problem lies at the other end of the scale?

If some horses were truly weighted to their ability the allotted weight would fall well below bottom limitations. What is conclusive is that weight does not bring horses together nor is it a significant factor in the defeat of the best horses. Now I can hear the weight proponents voicing "But weight will stop a train" and, yes, weight will stop a train, but it must be questionable whether the taxing effect of added weight within the normal parameters of racing handicapping is truly detrimental to a horse's ability to win.

A horse race, like any other race, is a contest of speed. Therefore, the most important attribute a racehorse can have is speed. Slow horses do not win races, nor do slow athletes, nor do slow cars. Speed is the dominant factor in horse racing. It is relative speeds that determine placings.

To determine the relevance of weights in racing, it is necessary to ascertain what weight carried does to actual speed. Many hours of net surfing in search of answers led me to the Truman State University in Minnesota USA. Who were kind enough to furnish me with over 80 pages of specific information on the relationship of weight and speed particular to racehorses.

As punters, what we would all like to know is whether weight is a significant factor in both the ability of a horse to perform and the duration of such a performance.

The first point is that the relationship of any weight-carrying ability correlates to the body weight of the horse. For the benefit of this inquiry it is the assumption we are not dealing with animals abnormally small in stature.

Whilst speed is the dominant factor in racing it must be considered in relation to its co-factors of Distance, Weight, Age and Sex. We are dealing predominantly with the weight/ speed relationship here.

The following points gleaned are the result of research that covered every official race run in the USA over a 25 year period, furnishing over 200,000 records. It has been established that the point at which weight carried starts to impact on a horse's speed is 1131b or 51.4kg, which is around the limit weight for most races in this country.

The impact on speed at this point is only slight, then, with greater added weight, there is greater speed reduction, but examination of weight speed charts reveals the impact between one horse carrying 54kg and another carrying 57kg is minimal. Again, this adds credence as to why statistically the higher weighted horses win more races.

One of Rem Plante's initial theories was that the weight effect was more pronounced over the concluding stages of a race, producing a decelerating effect, whilst weight off a horse produced an accelerating effect.

The first part can be challenged statistically whilst the university research has revealed an interesting phenomenon in regards to weight off a horse known as the "switch back effect".

It is the reverse assumption to standard weight ideas in that the more weight you take off a horse the faster they will run. Analysis of 200,000 races shows this has firm limitations to the point where weight reduction could easily be dismissed as only a very minor consideration in form.

If we use 52kg as racing's minimum, seldom do we see horses weighted above 60kg. The whole scope of weight and related issues in essence is encompassed in only an 8kg framework.

Weight shifts between horses within this framework also means the shift of hundreds of thousands of dollars in wagers. If horse A defeats horse B by a head, then under similar conditions horse B has a 2kg turnaround in the weights, and weight pundits will assuredly back horse B to reverse the placings.

Let's try to examine what the 2kg rise will do to horse A in the above situation from a different perspective. In the animal world horses are not small beasts; the average weight of a thoroughbred is around 550kg.

Two kilograms represents 0.36 per cent of the horse's body weight. Let's translate this illustration to human terms. Two 90kg athletes compete, with athlete A narrowly victorious over athlete B over 200m. Same conditions a week later and this time athlete A must carry 0.36 per cent of his body weight strapped to his back as a penalty.

This equates to 330 grams or about the size of a family block of chocolate. Which begs the question: Will the 330g penalty stop a powerful, finely tuned athlete from repeating the win? And will a 2kg weight turn around impede the winning chances of a 550kg thoroughbred?

It seems somewhat incongruous to me that so much emphasis in racing and punting is placed on such frugal weight shifts. One of the biggest indictments against the value of weights is the history of the set weight 3yo events.

What we have here is a "double action" where under performers who would carry minimum weight in a handicap are obliged to carry an extra 3.5kg whilst strong performers can enjoy a similar drop in weight. Class gallopers under this weight regime can meet their lesser performing rivals on up to 7kg better weight terms.

Bearing this in mind one would expect an overwhelming history of favourites in such events. I researched the results of the Victoria Derby and Oaks, Caulfield Guineas, Australian Guineas and Bill Stutt in Victoria and the AJC Derby and Oaks, Rosehill and Canterbury Guineas in Sydney over the past 25 years. Outright favourites in these events had a strike rate of less than 44 per cent.

Another interesting point unearthed during research, was that during a 10 year span in recent British racing,topweights were more successful over longer distances.

Sprint races and middle distance races returned a 24 per cent win rate whilst staying events yielded a 29 per cent win rate.

This again seemingly defies standard weight rationale. Logically, the further the weight is carried, the greater the taxing effect.

This would again add further credibility to the earlier suggestion that within the normal parameters of weight handicapping of racehorses, weights have only a minimal effect. Weight is essentially a function of recent form and class, a figure of external acknowledgment of racecourse deeds.

Perhaps there have been a few seeds of doubt sewn amongst the most hardcore weight adherents. Maybe it's time to look beyond the implication of weights and focus more on aspects that deal directly with a horse's ability.

Personally, I'm truly converted. No more examination of allotted weights or weight shifts, which after 30 years of doing form is really a weight off my mind.

By Ken Blake