10/31/2002 12:00AM

Conditions altered to halt claim exodus

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - In the past few years horsemen from Alberta, Winnipeg, Washington, and Oregon have flocked to Hastings Park to claim horses at the end of the meet and take them back home. With the shortage of horses in British Columbia and a desire by the Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association to discourage this type of raiding, Debbie Peebles, director of racing at Hastings, has come up with an innovative condition book for the last four weeks of the Hastings meet.

In what has to be a first for North America, Peebles, along with her assistant Lorne Mitchell, have written a book that doesn't include any claiming races. Other than the odd allowance and handicap, all of the races offered for the final eight days of the meet are categorized as optional claiming races. Technically, they are optional-claiming-starter races with a stipulation that a horse can't have won a claiming race for the same price or more, unless he runs for the claiming price. For example, a horse like Karabez, who won a $6,000 claiming race last weekend, would have to run for a price if he runs back in a $6,000 optional race, but if he runs back for $8,000, he could run protected.

Maiden races are also optional claiming races, but first-time starters have to run for the price before they are protected. In other words, an owner can run a maiden who has already started, say, for $15,000, in a $15,000 optional maiden race and not worry about losing him via the claim box. If a horse who had already started in a $15,000 maiden race wanted to run in a cheaper race for maidens, he would have to run for the price. If he ran for a higher price, however, he would be protected.

"It was actually the HBPA's idea," said Peebles. "Their condition book committee was looking for a way to help keep horses in the province. We've seen too many horses leave at the end of the year, and hopefully this will help. It certainly won't hurt to try."

David Milburn is a former president of the HBPA and is currently a member of the condition book committee. He supports the idea.

"I don't mind people claiming horses. It's part of the business, and I claim my share of horses," he said. "But it's disappointing to see someone take one of your horses and then leave the province."

Illusive Force done for year

Illusive Force will be turned out for the year following his convincing win in the $139,827 Ascot Graduation Breeders' Cup last Sunday. His win was convincing enough to have his trainer Robert VanOverschot thinking about the Queen's Plate next year.

"He's a pretty nice horse," said VanOverschot. "He won pretty easily and he's well-bred. It's not easy to plan a schedule around the Queen's Plate, but we're thinking about it and it would be great to see a B.C-bred run in it."

VanOverschot was hoping to use the Alberta Derby as a prep for the Queen's Plate but they're only eight days apart. Most of the major races for 3-year-olds in western Canada are later in the year, and it's very difficult to get a horse ready to go 1 1/4 miles in June racing solely on the West Coast.

Valdez hits the road

Jockey Felipe Valdez is shipping his tack to Sam Houston Racetrack and he's not sure if he's coming back next year. "It's very hard riding just two days a week, and if I can catch on down there I'll probably stay," he said. "I love Vancouver and the people here have been great to me, but if Hastings is going to stick with their schedule, it will be tough to come back."

Valdez's departure could be the beginning of an exodus of top riders from Hastings leaving to ride in other jurisdictions because of the two-day-a-week schedule currently in place. All of the jockeys in the Hastings jock room find it difficult to ride the marathon cards on weekends after sitting out all week.

Leading apprentice Nicola Wright and last year's leading rider, David Wilson, are weighing their options for next year.

"I've been talking to people at Woodbine, and if I can ride there next year I'll probably give it a go," said Wright. It is not easy for foreign riders to get approval to ride at Woodbine, but Wright, who is from Wales, said she has had some positive feedback from back there.

Wilson said he wasn't sure where he would go, but mentioned Fort Erie as a possibility. "I can't see coming back here to ride just two days a week," he said.