06/21/2013 3:18PM

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

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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.

karen More than 1 year ago
I was wondering what happened to Power of Nine, anyone know? Her last race, she was vanned off. She was claimed that race and claim was voided. That has been written about quite a bit, but as to what her condition, I can't find anything! I really liked her and part of me is scared to find out. Help?
Troy Racki More than 1 year ago
I for one am glad that claimers run for such high purses because even then it is hard enough trying to break even in the sport. With $4,000 a month guaranteed expenses between day rate and vet bills, owning thoroughbreds becomes a faster losing proposition the smaller purses get. On that $50,000 claimer, first off you are paying around 8% sales tax and transfer fee just to purchase the horse, or about $4,000. Next you are probably not going to find another race for 4 weeks when you consider most trainers give their horses at least two weeks until their next race, then it takes at least another two to find the right conditions. So another $4,000. Consequently the owner is already in the hole 16%. If their horse wins, and that's a big if, that supposed $50,000 purse is actually much less to the winner. The winner only takes home 60% or $30,000. Then the jockey and trainer take 10% each. The stable takes 2%. Pony to post fee. So the purse for the owner is actually only $23,000. Now subtract the $8,000 the owner had in already. So the $50,000 horse only returned $15,000 of profit. So saying a horse claimed for $50,000 can run once and win $50,000 is misleading. And what if the horse doesn't win that first race? Most don't. Then its another month of time off until the next race, bringing costs up to $12,000. Then the trainer says we need to drop the horse to $40,000 to try to get a win. Maybe the horse does win at $40,000 but the purse then is only $40,000 and the horse gets claimed away. What is the result then? $-8,000 of training/vet, $-10,000 on claim loss, $-4,000 on tax/transfer. The purse only pays $18,720 after all fees and commissions. Congratulations, your horse won it's 2nd time out but you ended up losing $-3,280 in the process or 7% of your original investment. So our 75% of our sport really needs better purses.
Manuel Fernandez-W More than 1 year ago
Well said.
Dennis Lapp More than 1 year ago
The claiming business should be, and historically, has been about risk of loss: the risk that the claim can't run, is wholly unsound, will drop dead, or is Secretariat in disguise. The new Cal rules remove risk of loss from the calculation. For that reason, they stir champagne! And alter a system that has worked decently.
Ben van den Brink More than 1 year ago
If an horse is sound, it does not need any form of medication. If an horse needs medication, it does not run
Harry Clark More than 1 year ago
Pulitzer material, so much insight on what's right in front of us.
Don Reed More than 1 year ago
Jay is in the wrong sport for that kind of recognition, but it will hearten you to know that Columbia University (site of the Pulitzer awards committee) rewarded an ex-felon bank robber with a teaching position, not too long ago. Jay, the choice is yours. Continue to write well in the racing ghetto, or find out where the nearest branch of the Bank of America is conducting its business.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The late Mr Frankel stated it as well as it can be stated. What he said is the reason our sport is being extinguished. Too bad
george pelyak More than 1 year ago
For the past 10 years I have posted comments , written blogs, etc. crying for a return to the jailhouse rule...the claiming super trainers aren't trainers, they are book keepers who work on a smaller profit margin and a big turnover of the merchandise much like Walmart and the super markets...also, IMO, one of the major problems in racing is the conditions written by the secretaries...got to get back to more open claimers and less of the nit picking conditions like non winners of 2,3, etc.