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.