06/21/2013 3:18PM

Jay Hovdey: Changes to claiming game a double-edged sword


In case someone failed to notice, a war of attrition has been quietly declared on a fundamental pillar of the Thoroughbred racing business in these United States.

The claiming game is under attack, as witnessed in the past 15 months by rules changes in major jurisdictions that have rattled the status quo. In California, claims now can be voided if the claimed horse does not pass some level of post-race soundness evaluation. New York’s variation on that theme voids a claim if a horse is vanned off or is euthanized as a result of the race. Maryland has revisited the “jail time” rule and now requires a horse to run for 25 percent more than his claimed price during the 30 days after a claim.

There are other modifications afoot. Horses in several jurisdictions are allowed to return from long layoffs and run once at their most recent claiming level without fear of being claimed. Purse limits in relation to claiming prices have been established. Official veterinarians are finding they have increasing institutional support to scratch horses both morning and afternoon.

In an update on the progress of the new California claiming rules, it was learned at this week’s racing board meeting that 13 out of 163 claims had been voided at the state’s two active Thoroughbred tracks due to unsoundness since mid-May, when the latest version of the rules took effect.

For some reason, most of the commissioners thought this was a good thing, and perhaps it was, if the intention was to provide unlucky consumers with a quick way out of a bad investment. Supporters of the rule also suggest that trainers henceforth will be discouraged from running a horse with a dicey ankle or a suspicious tendon for fear of not only a voided claim, but of the public humiliation as well.

Fine, if that’s how they want to roll. Legislating morality always works like a charm. But with only a slight turn of the prism, the affect of the new rules could also be read like this:

Should those 13 have been running in the first place? Was something missed in an official pre-race exam, or by the trainer and his staff? Is it assumed that someone did something wrong that put those horses in jeopardy? Was it necessary for those 13 to go through the pressure of competition before an incipient injury could be revealed? Or are we to believe all 13 were sound as a dollar going in and then something happened in the race?

It is necessary for the rulemakers of the sport to try every reasonable method of protecting the health and welfare of horses. Insuring the integrity of transactions also is an admirable goal, as is holding accountable those who attempt to subvert the established standards of welfare and commerce.

But let’s never forget that Thoroughbred racing, American style, operates as two distinct worlds. One of them gets all the headlines and the bulk of the high-profile investment. The other makes up more than 75 percent of the programs in claiming races and generates the majority of the handle.

Because the two worlds collide on a regular basis, as stakes races and claiming races regularly mix on any given day, the public conflates the two worlds as one. Casual fans rightfully figure all horses are god’s four-legged creatures, while experienced horseplayers understand that it is a mistake to wander from basic principles just because there are an extra couple of zeroes on a purse.

However, once inside the two worlds the differences can be night and day. Claiming’s most ardent practitioners have likened their game to poker, a pastime in which players take the cards they’re dealt and then proceed to bluff and bully their way to success. Sounds romantic, right?

In fact, claiming is all about inventory and turnover. It’s about maximizing a narrow window of opportunity and then moving the merchandise when the goods go stale. Were it not for being able to flaunt nominal legends like Seabiscuit, Stymie, John Henry and Lava Man – all of them shoved into claimers because that’s what was available – the claiming game would be no more than an accounting footnote in the history of the sport.

A 75 percent footnote.

There are plenty of trainers who bring a measure of dignity to the claiming business. They have found in claiming a way in which to express their skills of horsemanship, like Mozarts composing bad rap. But even the best of them have been heard to say, with a reluctant chill, “We were lucky to lose him.”

It has been 10 years since I asked Bobby Frankel about the claiming business. Nobody did it better than Frankel, and nobody turned his back on the practice with more effective finality.

“I can’t believe the huge purses for claiming horses,” Frankel said in July 2003. “It’s a deterrent for people to go out and buy good horses, when you can claim a horse for $50,000 and run him right back for a purse the same as what he’s worth. Sometimes more. Where’s the incentive to improve your stock? I mean, unless I made a huge, really good claim, I’d rarely even raise a horse nowadays.

“There’s less horsemanship, the way claiming is now,” Frankel went on. “But it depends on who you are, and how much you care about the animal. With a lot of guys, it’s a quick fix. You get one, you start injecting, you call the vet. Now you’ve got clenbuterol, and everything else you can stick into these horses . . . keep him for a few weeks, do everything you can to him, and you can drop him in half and still be running for a good purse. The horse is just a commodity now, like Nascar.”

For racing to make sense, horses must find their level of competition. It is only in the United States that those levels come attached to a system fraught with the potential pitfalls of short-term use. Could the United States ever transform its claiming system into the classification groupings of other racing nations? Probably not, given the scope of the sport. But at least it’s worth a try. For all the changes being made in the rules, the devil is not in the details. It’s in the culture.