04/15/2004 12:00AM

Lesser horses given some new options


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Woodbine this year has introduced a new set of optional claiming races, which are designed to benefit the owners and trainers of younger horses who are a cut below allowance caliber.

Last year, the only optional claimers written at Woodbine were for $80,000 and $100,000 runners.

The new optional claimers are for $25,000 and $50,000 maidens, and for $25,000 and $50,000 nonwinners-of-two and nonwinners-of-three. In all of these events, trainers have the option of running their horse with or without a claiming tag. A horse who wins while running without a claiming tag will lose his eligibility at the corresponding allowance level.

Chris Evans, Woodbine's director of racing, said the new races are designed to prevent expensive purchases, well-bred horses, and "family pets" with limited talent from shipping to Fort Erie to contest relatively weak maiden special weight events.

"The idea is to provide those types of horses with easier spots for them to break their maidens in here," Evans said. "We thought that if we were going to do that, then why not do something similar for nonwinners-of-two and nonwinners-of-three? The idea is to give a guy a shot at winning three races in easier company, without having to expose them to running with a claiming price. I think these races should have broad appeal for big stables and little stables."

Evans said he has had mixed feedback from owners and trainers regarding the new races. "It's been 50-50," Evans said. "The people who breed horses like them, and the people who claim them don't."

There has been speculation among horsemen that the high-profile barns running horses in these races without a claiming tag could dominate the new races, to the detriment of trainers with cheaper stock. Evans, however, doesn't necessarily think that will be the case, because the purses for the new races are significantly lower than those of maiden special weight and preliminary allowances. For example, a maiden special purse is $58,800, while the purse for a $25,000 optional maiden race is just $29,400.

"If [large outfits] win these races," Evans said, "they can't come back at the higher level, where there could be a $60,000 purse, and then break their maiden again - they've blown that condition.

"They didn't ship to Fort Erie in droves to win the cheap maiden or nonwinners-of-two allowances in the past. Will they do it here? I don't know."

Trainer Ron Burke predicted that it will be hit and miss regarding the quality of the new optional claimers.

"I believe it could work both ways," Burke said. "You might get lucky and hook a field without any good horses, or you might hook some tough ones. I'm sure that some of the big barns will use them as preps as they work their way towards something else. I don't really think they'll care about the size of the purse."

Bob Tiller, Woodbine's leading trainer in 2003, said he isn't keen on the new optional claimers.

"I'm not a fan of them, but I'll have a better opinion once we start racing," Tiller said. "I understand why they're having them, but I'm a strong believer in running horses where they belong. If a horse is only worth $25,000, then they should be running for $25,000. No matter what you paid for them, I think you should find their value."

Evans said he won't hesitate to tinker with the makeup of the new races.

"The whole thing is trial and error," Evans said. "If the general feeling is that people are continually dropping horses in who belong at the allowance level, then we'd have to rework things."

Woodbine racing secretary Steve Lym said the new optional claimers will be offered on a regular basis. "There will be a full slate of them," Lym said. "Sprints will be written every 14 to 16 days. There will be routes every 18 to 25 days."

Entries return to 48-hour format

In an attempt to bolster field sizes, Woodbine has gone back to the 48-hour draw schedule this year. There will be no scratch time the day after entries. Scratches must be submitted the morning of the race, and the stewards will decide who will be allowed to be withdrawn after they receive the veterinarian scratches.

Evans said as many as 16 horses will be listed in the entries. Fourteen-horse fields will have two also-eligibles. Turf races with the rail way out, which can only carry 10 runners, will have six also-eligibles.