03/16/2012 5:01PM

Aqueduct: NYRA to adjust bottom claim level, purses following breakdowns

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. – As the New York Racing Association embarks on a comprehensive investigation into the rash of breakdowns that have occurred at Aqueduct this winter, the head of the association said Friday that purses will be cut for lower-level claiming races beginning April 4.

Since the inner track opened Nov. 30, 17 fatalities have occurred over the surface, eight since Feb. 25. Thirteen of those fatalities have occurred in races where the horses were running for a claiming price of $15,000 or less, essentially the cheapest horses on the grounds.

“I think it’s logical to look at the purse levels in that general area, which we’re in the process of doing right now,” NYRA president and CEO Charles Hayward said Friday in his office during a lengthy meeting with New York’s racing reporters.

Hayward said he and P.J. Campo, NYRA vice president/director of racing, have yet to finalize the amount of the reduction, but said it is likely that claiming races in which horses are being offered for $20,000 or less “will get an adjustment and there will be money put back at the top. . . . The goal should be to have a sustainable mid- and upper-level claiming [product]. It’s better for the bettors, it’s better for the horsemen.”

Also, beginning April 4, the bottom claiming level will be raised from $7,500 to $10,000. At Belmont, which opens April 27, the bottom will likely rise to $12,500.

With an infusion of cash from the Resorts World Casino that opened at Aqueduct on Oct. 28, NYRA last fall announced an across-the-board purse increase, upping purses from $8,000 to $10,000 per race, which took effect Dec 28.

That resulted in horses running for a $7,500 tag – the bottom level available – vying for purses from $27,000 to $30,000.

The higher purses led to an explosion of activity at the claiming box. From Nov. 30 through Thursday, 462 horses were claimed for $7.8 million.

With the higher purses for cheaper horses, it is believed that horsemen became more aggressive in dropping their horses in class, knowing they could afford to run a horse for less than they claimed it for while still making money.

David Jacobson, who claimed 43 horses at the meet and who is the leading trainer at this meet with 39 wins, said he simply places horses where they can be competitive.

“I’m going to run horses where I think they should be able to win,” Jacobson said. “These purses are great for the game.”

Jacobson said the increased purses brought more people into the game and said his stable increased in size from 28 to 30 horses last year to 48 to 50 this winter.

Jacobson said reducing purses will “discourage people from getting in the game.”

In five of the fatalities, the horse was claimed. Under New York’s rules, there are no refunds. At least one trainer, Dominic Galluscio, believes that rule should be changed.

“If a horse is claimed and it broke down, the claim should be voided,” said Galluscio, who also has been active at the claim box. “Not to protect my money – we’re big boys that are claiming – but to stop the people from running horses for the sole purpose of getting rid of them so they don’t have to rehabilitate them.”

In some states, like California, a claim is voided if the horse has to be euthanized on the track. Jacobson, who on Jan. 14 claimed Scorper for $7,500 out of a race in which that gelding suffered a fatal breakdown on the track, disagrees with the California rule.

“That’s part of the game,” Jacobson said. “I don’t believe in that.”

In light of the breakdowns, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday sent Hayward a letter advising NYRA to investigate the cause of the breakdowns and try to come up with some solutions to prevent future fatalities.

Hayward said NYRA is in the process of finding people to conduct a review of existing policies. He said he hopes to have some people in place by next week.

“If this is going to be any good and meaningful, they should come in and look at everything and they should start next week,” Hayward said. “That’s what we’re hopeful we can do. I think this is an opportunity to look at a number of things.”

As an example, Hayward said that Campo would like the racing office to be able to access complete medical records of horses.

“If a horse gets claimed three different times, we don’t know how a horse was treated going back,” Hayward said.

Hayward also mentioned the possibility of making the vet list public, something that is done in other jurisdictions, but not New York.

“I got a lot of things I’d like them to address that are directly relevant to the health and well being of the horse and the integrity of the bettor,” Hayward said.

One area that does not seem to be of concern is the inner track itself. No trainers or jockeys have complained about the track being unsafe.

However, NYRA has decided to move racing to the main track beginning Wednesday, two weeks earlier than scheduled.

Coincidentally, NYRA and the union that represents track maintenance workers, are in a contract dispute. The union maintains NYRA is attempting to reduce their salaries by 40 percent and cut back on the number of hours of track maintenance.

Hayward said that the amount of overtime NYRA pays has resulted in 18 track maintenance workers making at least $100,000.