03/29/2013 4:34PM

Andrew Beyer: Assessing Maryland's breakdown response

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During a span of five weeks this winter, 10 horses were euthanized after breaking down at Laurel Park, and the racing community was understandably alarmed. Why were these catastrophic events happening at a track with a previously good safety record?

People in the sport had reason to worry about its public image, too. In recent years, similar epidemics of breakdowns have occurred at Aqueduct, Del Mar, and Arlington Park, and the tracks all received blistering coverage by the media. Aqueduct’s problems wound up on page one of the New York Times.

The Maryland Thoroughbred industry often appears dysfunctional, but in this case the Maryland Racing Commission responded promptly to a tough issue. A committee analyzed the breakdowns, interviewed the horses’ trainers, and studied the animals’ medical histories. It wasted no time producing a report on its findings and last week made some thoughtful recommendations.

Horse safety has become such a sensitive subject that nobody in racing likes to state one inescapable fact: Some fatalities are inevitable because Thoroughbreds are fragile animals and the sport is dangerous. Fit, sound horses in the care of judicious trainers can break down, as Barbaro did in the 2006 Preakness, and there’s no way to prevent the tragedy. So a cluster of breakdowns may not have an underlying explanation; it may be a random concentration of bad events.

After the commission completed its study, chairman Bruce Quade said, “There was no ‘Eureka!’ finding.” The Safety and Welfare Committee’s report presented abundant data to verify that the Laurel racing strip was not to blame.

However, the report noted that six of the injured horses were running in $5,000 claiming races – the lowest level in Maryland. This might not be statistically significant, but common sense suggests that horses who have descended to the bottom of the class ladder have physical issues that make them vulnerable. The unlucky ones may fall into the hands of unscrupulous trainers who will risk running an infirm animal in order to win a purse.

So the commission decided that it could best protect horses by reforming some of the rules of the claiming game:

◗ A claimed horse who does not run for 180 days may race once at the level of his purchase price with an exemption from being claimed. This gives a break to horsemen willing to take their time in bringing an animal back from an injury.

◗ A horse who races within 30 days of being claimed must start for a price tag at least 25 percent higher than his purchase price. This  rule would discourage trainers from dropping a horse in class and running him back quickly to get a fast return on investment.

◗ The commission is considering a rule that would void a claim if the claimed horse breaks down – penalizing the trainer who may have run an infirm horse rather than the unlucky trainer who bought him.

◗ It is also considering a limit on the size of purses in low-level claiming races, having learned a lesson from Aqueduct’s experience. The New York track’s rash of breakdowns in 2012 occurred after casino money had boosted purses to unprecedented levels. Bottom-level $7,500 claimers were competing for as much as $40,000 – an irresistible incentive for unscrupulous trainers to do anything in order to get a cheap horse to deliver a maximum performance. The New York Times headline summed it up: “Big Purses, Sore Horses and Death.”

A comparable situation exists now in Maryland, where $5,000 claimers compete for a purse of $17,500. Though horsemen will balk, of course, the commission wants Maryland to emulate New York and reduce the ratio of the purse size to the claiming price.

It is encouraging that the commission took the lead on this issue and handled it so thoughtfully. Maryland racing faces a slew of other problems, but the track’s management and its horsemen have such a long history of hostility that they can rarely agree on anything. But since Quade became chairman last year, the commission might play the role of a neutral arbiter. Unlike many of his predecessors, Quade is not a horse owner and has no stake in the game except when he bets. He has been a racing fan since he started sneaking into Bowie Race Course as a teenager.  

One of his top priorities: “We need to do something to stimulate the state’s breeding industry.” Quade has made the controversial proposal that some of the money allotted to purses be paid as awards to owners of Maryland-bred horses. (Trainers aren’t thrilled with this idea because it would reduce their cut from a winning purse.) The health of the breeding industry is important to the entire sport. When Maryland’s Thoroughbred farms were thriving, they provided many of the horses who gave the state a solid racing product. In 1991, more than 1,700 Thoroughbreds were foaled in Maryland; by 2011, the number had dropped to 388. That’s one of the reasons the quality of racing at Laurel has been so poor, with so many small fields and so many bottom-level claiming horses.

When it was suggested to Quade that the issue of breeder awards was not within the purview of the racing commission, he objected: “Hell, yes, it’s in the interest of the racing commission to look at everything that affects this industry.” If that’s his philosophy, he won’t have any shortage of controversial projects to tackle.

© 2013, The Washington Post

Cris McHenka More than 1 year ago
With the costs of racing a horse today I think that the purses should be allowed to be whatever the racing sec. chooses to allow for that race. However horses running in claiming races should have their vet report posted whenever they are dropping in class. In this way the public, the wagerer, can choose if he wants to bet on this horse. The management can quickly tell if this horse should be entered at all, and the trainer's practices are out there for all to see. If the horse needs time the track can request the horse be stopped for 120 days, or the trainer if he overrules the request will be suspended 30 days in case of a breakdown
jttf More than 1 year ago
why not follow the example of greyhound racing. use a letter to define a claiming class. if you win a race, you must go up one level in your next race. if you drop down a class, you must drop down only one level (letter) at a time. class A.) would be for a claiming level of $50,000 or higher. class B.) $25,000 to $49,000 class C.) $15,000 to $24,000 class D.) $10,000 to $14,000 class E.) $5000 to $9,000 class F.) below $5000 i see huge class drops that makes you wonder how many problems does this horse have ? then you see breakdowns occur on huge class drops. it makes a lot of sense for winning horse to move a up a level. this will create a more even playing field. a dominant horse with a high percentage winning trainer can smoke fields staying at the same level. make them run at least 2 races at the higher level, before coming back down. the purse money will dispersed out more evenly and provide the smaller trainer a better chance at making some money.
W.G. More than 1 year ago
I definitely think there needs to be caps on purses in claiming races. As I wrote about this last September when the New York report came out: http://www.toosmarttofail.com/forums/showthread.php/29511. In that regard, this included: Limit open claiming races to where the winner's share in races of less than one mile is no more than 80% of the claiming price and the total purse is no more than 40% above the claiming price itself in such races. If this had been in effect for the Aqueduct 2011-'12 winter season, the maximum purse offered for open $7,500 claimers would have been $10,500 as opposed to the $29,000 those horses raced for. Limit open claiming races to where the winner's share in races of one mile or over is no more than the claiming price and the total purse is no more than 60% above the claiming price itself in such races. If this had been in effect for the Aqueduct 2011-'12 winter season, the maximum purse offered for open $7,500 claimers would have been $12,500 as opposed to the $30,000 those horses raced for. Limit claiming races for non-winners of two races lifetime to where the winner's share in races of less than one mile is no more than 50% of the claiming price and the total purse is no more than 75% of the claiming price itself in such races. If this had been in effect for the Aqueduct 2011-'12 winter season, the maximum purse offered for N2L $7,500 claimers would have been $5,600 as opposed to the $25,000 those horses raced for. Limit claiming races for non-winners of two races lifetime to where the winner's share in races of one mile or more is no more than 60% of the claiming price and the total purse is no more than 80% of the claiming price itself in such races. If this had been in effect for the Aqueduct 2011-'12 winter season, the maximum purse offered for N2L $7,500 claimers would have been $6,000 as opposed to the $26,000 those horses raced for. These are just the extreme examples of what I would be doing. Since the 2011-'12 winter season at Aqueduct, the claiming bottom in New York has gone up considerably, first to $10,000 in April 2012 at Aqueduct and then $12,500 for the Belmont Spring meeting and then $20,000 for the Saratoga meeting this past summer. Aqueduct has been at a $12,500 bottom for the most part this past winter I believe. Such a rule in Maryland would likely increase the claiming bottom to $7,500 or $10,000 (and if implemented my way in New York likely would see many of the conditioned claimers eliminated there with the claiming bottom increased to $17,500 year round), which would be in line with where it should be.
Mark D More than 1 year ago
Why not have restricted Maryland Bred Maiden, claiming and Allowance races??.....this will increase the value of a Maryland breds and increase there sales price at auction. Everyone wins. It seems Maryland is the only track that does not do this.
Lee Jenkins More than 1 year ago
Who in the world would suggest that breeder payments are not "within the purview of the racing commission?"
Jeremy Porter More than 1 year ago
Yea OK beyer! The Barbaro issue could and should of been avoided, after he busted out the gather prior to the race, you know and I know he should of been scratched but greed and greed alone kill that awesome animal!!!! Quit lying to the public!!!
Biggar W More than 1 year ago
You know what other people know, and when they are lying. You are quite a fellow indeed.
Jeremy Porter More than 1 year ago
Wow you got me bigger!!! Good one man!!! People like u and Mr better r why this sports done!!!!
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Sorry, fellows, I believe my beloved Barbaro should have been scratched, too, and if you watched is warmups, he was not comfrotabe, He was bucking, and thowing a hind leg out, commentators were saying that this "bucking" was a "ggod sign" However, I think he was trying to get El Hombre, off of his back, similar to when Skippy dumped his ex rider one morning, he was bucking and kickin, too, not because he was "ready to go" but his back was in pain.. I remember the quote from Sonny Hine, at the BC Classic when asked about Skippy, and he said, this was my greatest training job, not meaning Skippy was 100% ready to go out and win, but he had Skippy comfortable despite his sore back ready to run!, When Skippy arrived at his new home for breeding, the Stallion grooms stated that if you even rubbed your hands across his back, he would bend as his back was so sensitive..Unfortunately, I wrote to several boards saying Barbaro should be scratched, 18 minutes and other intervals before the race. Also, the gate breakthrough also was an indicator, there were no horses acting up around him, but when the outrider brought him back to the front of the gate, Barbaro, stopped, looked thru the gate, frightened eyes wide open, the left rear toe down in the dirt, as if the pain he was feeling, was coming from the "gate" But I seriously doubt on that big a stage, with millions wagered on Barbaro, it wouldn't make sense to scartch for "business" concerns
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Right rear hoof toed down, sorry for typo..
Jay Romig More than 1 year ago
I've been told there is almost to much cushion to the track, almost unheard of. Usually most tracks save money by having no cushion.When it's deep you get a lot of tendon pulls and suspensory pulls and even tears.The cheaper horses have lots of issues and aches and pains and more resistance can be a huge problem. I don't think this is a problem of track neglect.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Great timing for this Beyer. Have you ever been anything other than a bummer?
Biggar W More than 1 year ago
So, what is the timing issue that you refer to?
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Simply this... On the very eve of the biggest day in Racing thus far this year, Beyer brings us thoughts of the ugliest events in Racing, breakdowns. This article could have played just as well next Tuesday. Poor timing that's all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have you, Chad? Every post I see from you just seems to be contrary for the sake of being a contrarian, usually erring on the side of gloom.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
You have my name. Give us yours and I can respond.
rvraynmary More than 1 year ago
It is well to assume that nearly all horses entered in claiming races, especially the lower tiers,have some type of physical issue. Not the type to break down during he race but enough to be wary of a subpar performance. That's the nature of the game. I like the proposed rules changes.