10/03/2012 3:48PM

Hovdey: Claiming game put under the microscope

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The “third rail” of American politics is Social Security. Touch it with the intent to tinker, and you can kiss your election chances goodbye. You’re fried.

Thoroughbred racing has had its own third rails, institutions that seemed to exist above reform, impervious to discussion no matter what the evidence demands.

For decades most of the game’s top races, particularly for older horses, were handicaps. They were revered as pillars of the sport, providing benchmarks of achievement by which future generations would be judged. But then competition for top horses began to erode the integrity of the system as racing secretaries caved to the pressures of promotion, to the point where arbitrarily assigned weight spreads became meaningless. As 2012 dawned, only 18 of the 65 Grade 1 stakes for 3-year-olds and up were defined as handicaps. Issue closed.

Racehorse medication has enjoyed third rail protection through the years, whether it was diligently ignored as a problem of the shadowy fringes or robustly embraced along with the advancement of veterinary science. Today, medication reform is out of the closet big time, easily the most debated issue of the moment, the debate fueled not only by exotic drug violations that leach between breeds but also by deeply abiding concerns that the innate physiology of the Thoroughbred has been corrupted through a steady chemical drip.

Handicaps, medication, taxes, takeout, jockey weights, license fees, racing surfaces, casinos – everything that needs reform appears to be on the table if Thoroughbred racing is going to maintain its niche in the American sports culture. Credit where credit is due: there seems to be a growing number of concerned racing leaders who are able to park self-interests long enough to apply the broad view to tough questions.

There is one issue, however, that still clings to its safe haven on the third rail, and that is the American reliance on claiming races to fuel the engines of parimutuel betting.

Attempts to vilify the claiming world invariably fall flat. Claiming is not a dirty little secret of Thoroughbred racing. It may have its unseemly side, fraught with abuses and theatrics, but it is hardly a game played in the dark. In fact, claiming events make up about 70 percent of the races run each year.

It can be argued that claiming makes it possible for many investors to put their money in the racing business at a level they can both enjoy and possibly afford. Claiming races have for ages provided a no-brainer framework upon which racing secretaries can build the rest of their programs. The claiming world even comes equipped with its own historic lore, from its most successful human practitioners to the famous horses who either changed hands and went on to greatness or dallied briefly for a tag without being taken.

All that’s well and good. But there also remains the undeniable fact that claiming races, by their very nature, serve to weaken the inherent responsibilities of both ownership and animal husbandry. The demands of constant turnaround require short-term solutions in veterinary care. The claiming game also nurtures the ability to suppress any real emotional attachments to the horses involved. They are, after all, merely transients – poker chips, as one famous claiming owner called them – no more or less than means to an end.

The Thoroughbred sport has long been comfortable with such realities, and anyone who thinks abuses in care or medications are exclusive only to claiming horses is decidedly naïve. Still, there lingers the perception – if not the reality – that claiming horses do not get the same consideration as their more talented brethren.

Even the jargon speaks of a Third Equine World. Horses are “dropped” for a tag when their keepers are trying to “steal” a race. Horses “escape” the claiming ranks to become “reformed” claimers. A stakes horse will suffer a minor injury and receive a full-blown diagnostic examination that, according to his handlers, wouldn’t necessarily be given to a “cheaper” horse. The retirement population at private facilities are full of old geldings who have earned hundreds of thousands for a series of owners, none of whom had the horse long enough to feel responsible for aftercare.

Recently, there has been a nibbling at the edges of the claiming model. In California, a rule was enacted this summer that voided a claim if the claimed horse died on the track in the act of participating in a race. There have been difficulties in the interpretation of the rule, most of them having to do with maintaining the integrity of veterinary care in the face of a commodity exchange. At the September meeting of the California Horse Racing Board, another rule was proposed that would void a claim if the claimed horse was placed on the official vet’s list coming out of the race.

In New York, the governor’s task force looking into the rash of breakdowns at Aqueduct last winter proposed, among other things, that purses for claiming races be no more than 1.6 times more than the prices for which those horses are running. The task force also liked California’s rule of voiding a claim if a horse dies on the track and wants to offer an owner the right to back out of a claim within an hour if the horse is vanned off the track, along with full disclosure of any joints injected on the claimed horse during the prior 30 days.

Such rule changes are intended to address perceived blindspots in the care and management of what amounts to a majority of the racing population. Opponents, however, see the new rules as an attempt to legislate morality and interfere with the free market dynamics of a system that ain’t broke.

“It’s been working pretty well,” said Bill Spawr, trainer of champion sprinter Amazombie, whose dam Wilshe Amaze was once claimed for $25,000. “I just wish they’d have asked some of us who’ve been claiming for a long time, because some of these rules will only discourage people from claiming at all.”

Claiming is already a tough game, on both man and beast, and added restrictions certainly could discourage some to invest. Still, the issue needs daylight and honest conversation, if only to help protect the beasts.

Kenneth Porteous More than 1 year ago
I say: GET RID OF ALL VETS! Let the track provide the vets using all the same equiptments and medicines that are legal. If trainer A wants to use something that is legal, trainer B and C don't get to know how A does it. It's all confidential. This will not stop cheating, unless you strip search everybody and build high walls. But it sure could curtail it and send the enemy of horses (the vets) packing.
russell More than 1 year ago
More races for claimers are carded at tracks like Emerald, Portland Meadows, La Downs, Calder, Tampa, etc than at the premier tracks. That said many tracks would close if they didn't race claiming races. I remember NY based claimers in late 1980's Federal Funds and Creme de la Fete that ran almost 100 starts, maybe more. That doesn't happen anymore so maybe the trainers are taking a step in the right direction.
Kyri Freeman More than 1 year ago
I'd love to see more races carded that are allowance/optional claiming -- giving owners the choice to put their horse in for the tag or not, no matter what the horse has previously won. We do not have this condition in CA but I think I have noticed it in other states. The CHRB rules are a step in the right direction, but we still need a way for owners who are not millionaires, and don't want to risk losing their horses with every race, to participate. We also need to do much more for horses that do not make it to the races/are no longer competitive and do not have breeding value.
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
The former stakes horses just slide farther and farther down the claiming ranks into third tier tracks who squeeze the last drop of ability out of them before they meet what is usually a tragic end. You want to revive this sport? Make it palatable for the average American who doesn't like to think about how these beauties' lives are ended. MAKE the owners pitch in for a decent retirement. Period! We don't see them as "poker chips".
Mary Hoffman More than 1 year ago
I couldn't agree more Gaye. I'm so glad to see this issue in print! Because of the "claiming game" many people think horse racing is as disgusting as dog racing - just another form of animal abuse. There has to be a better way. For horse racing to survive it has to respond to people's increased sensitivity to the treatment of animals. I can't be just about the betting.
Teri Blaser More than 1 year ago
A very good article. Mr. Hovdey you laid out pertinent facts that surround what is being implemented in the claiming world. I am a novice and an outsider when it comes to owning and training horses, but one of my goals is to eventually own a racehorse or two. The most likely place I will enter this world will be through the claiming races and I like the idea of claiming a horse that has a history rather than starting out with a young, unproven horse. I don't know if I am the only one who thinks this is a good way to go but if there is no guarantee that the horse will be alive after I claim him then I would have second thoughts about doing it in the first place. The proposals in NY regarding the adoption of CHRB standards and the addition of giving the new owner a way to opt out of the claim if the horse is vanned off is a start to protecting not only new owners but any of the owners of claimed horses. It isn't perfect but it is a viable solution. I hope that these rules are enacted, they are a process that might protect both man and beast.
M More than 1 year ago
This is a great piece outlining the major issues. Hovdey is balanced and thoughtful. The key point is that claiming could be improved upon, but the solution should be simple and straightforward. It is a great way to level the playing field--but could be modernized. There is some elegance to the simple drop and own the horse after the race. But can it be as simple as it was 50 year ago with high tech masking substances and large purses. And it would not be a leap to make some reforms. With post race drug testing and vet inspections and scratches already in place, a hybrid of these procedures (a 48 hour cooling time for a neutral/track vet out of the horse), could be a pre-requisite to the claiming transaction. Spawr has a nice point--to allow trainers/owners input on details. If done right, I see very few counter-arguments. Honest claiming barns have little to fear. The worried folks may be those engaged in deceptive practices. Disincentives to run unsound horses help the industry with larger goals related to safety, substances, new owner entry, public relations, and animal welfare. Policy makers are charged with aligning the incentives and setting a system in place that encourages the right behaviors. It is not clear the current claiming process encourages the behaviors most beneficial to the industry.
Pale Rider More than 1 year ago
Hovdey: Are you having a slow day? Lots of issues but no solutions!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The report would put Vets into daily care of a owners/trainers horse. Trainers know how to treat common everyday minor injuries or ailments of horses in their care. It is not practical and not affordable to put Vets in at every level of keeping a horse in training. A licensed trainer knows when a horse is in shape to be entered to race. Of course it is always subject to rejection by a track vet on the day of the race. This should not change.
Thomas Cook More than 1 year ago
Minor injuries that don't require injecting joints. Once you put a needle into a closed loint capsule, you star t arthritis and calcium deposits within the joint. Even with legends or adequan or non steroidal injections. Its messin with mother nature. Hose, sweat, ice, poultice...TIME
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
mr rodriguez thats a brilliant idea.put the vets name on the form of every horse he treated.also make the vet reports public for claimers before every race.also have a critic line of the ride of every loosing favorite.for exemple..... favorite SO AND SO RECEIVED an UNCHARECTERISTICALY bad ride by jockey RAMON DOMINGUES after a bad start he found every pocket during the running and then ignored a open path 3 wide nd darted behind horses,stayed inside behind horses and checked repeatedly.....or favorite STIFF MEISTER ridden by RAMON DOMINGUES could not overcome a bad ride and finished 4th at 3/5 after a bad start and finding every pocket,he had to check on the several times in the strech,becoming the sixth loosing favorite by this rider on this big pick 6 carryover day.
Morris More than 1 year ago
very good, well written,&to the point. but, claiming races are the backbone of the racing industry. for someone to be against claiming races, tells me, that he was never around where there werent any claiming races. ( cases in point, quarther horse racing, in cal. ,texas & okla., in the 50s & 60s. & afew more states to numerous to name.) claiming races allow horseman to class,& run their horses where they think that they should run. and yes, im sure that claimers require more attenion than a sound lightly raced stakes horse. i dont care if its a claiming race horse, or a president running for office, or the judas goat at the slaughter house. when he is campaned harder, he is worked harder, & has to have more care. there are lots of other things that require fixing, more than claiming races. how about we spend some of this time ,money & enegry, teaching the bleeding hearts, who oppose racing, as to the real facts of the racing world. the big end of the opposition to racing of any kind, are uninformed do gooders, that have no exposier to the real deal. a good place to start would be for jay hoovey to write a weekly articule, about the mechnics of the back side of the race track. we have got to stop some of these assumed, miss guided opinions that damage the image of the horseman. keep up they good work hoovey, just do more of it. thanks, i remain, "an ole railbird"