07/28/2011 12:09PM

New claiming rule in California stirs debate


A rule change in California that will void any claim for a horse who dies on the racetrack is likely to be seriously considered in other states despite opposition by many horsemen’s groups, according to racing officials.

The California Horse Racing Board approved the change on a 5-2 vote last Thursday, making California the first state to adopt the rule. The change has been discussed informally for several years by various racing organizations and commissions as part of an ongoing effort by the industry to address concerns by animal-welfare advocates about the sport’s practices. Claims have traditionally been upheld regardless of a horse’s performance in the race – even if the horse dies.

The rule, which will probably go into effect in the next 90 days, is not expected to be invoked often. Six horses who were the subject of a claim were euthanized on the racetrack at California’s major Thoroughbred tracks during a period of nearly four years running from Jan. 1, 2007, to Sept. 10, 2010, according to data presented by the racing board at the Thursday meeting. California tracks ran approximately 18,000 Thoroughbred races in that period, according to data compiled by the Jockey Club.

Supporters of the rule assert that the change will remove “negative incentives” for trainers to run horses who might be at risk of breaking down. Under the previous rule, trainers theoretically had incentives to run horses with soundness issues in claiming races, in the hopes of getting rid of a horse at the end of its career through the claim box. If the horse died, the trainer and owner not only unloaded the horse and its bills, but were also compensated for it.

Despite the infrequency of incidents that would trigger the rule, the change has ruffled the feathers of horsemen in California and put horsemen in other states on notice of changes to come. By and large, horsemen said that they do not object to the spirit of the rule. What rankles them, the horsemen said, is that the California rule contains a significant loophole and could lead to the adoption of other exceptions that would hold horsemen responsible for any injury a horse suffers in a race, chilling horsemen’s willingness to enter horses in claiming races, which comprise approximately 60 percent of all races run.

Lou Raffetto, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Owners of California – who is also a former trainer and racetrack executive – said the TOC and other horsemen’s groups argued against the proposal at the recent meeting because the change did not make sense “logically.” He cited the fact that the rule requires the horse be put down “on the track” to be invoked. It will not void the claim of a horse who suffers a catastrophic injury but is not euthanized until the horse is transported back to the barn. In that case, the horse’s new owner and trainer would be required to pay the previous owner and trainer the claiming price – in addition to the euthanasia costs – whereas the horse who is put down on the track would remain the responsibility of the trainer and owner who entered the horse.

“Let’s take an injury like the one that Barbaro suffered,” said Raffetto, citing the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner who suffered a serious leg injury shortly after leaving the starting gate in the Preakness. “If an injury like that happened in a claiming race, you’re not going to put the horse down in front of the stands. You’re going to put the boot on him and take him back to the barn and put him down there. In that situation, the claim goes through. How does that make sense?”

Dr. Rick Arthur, the California racing board’s equine medical director, acknowledged the difficulties presented by the loophole but said the rule addresses the worst of incidents that can occur on the track – and, not coincidentally, the type of incident that occurs in full view of the public.

“Obviously, this was not a popular provision among horsemen,” Arthur said. “But what we’ve done is create a situation in which there is no reward for sticking someone with a bad horse. What we want to do is counter this notion of trainers playing Old Maid in the claiming game.”

Horsemen contend the characterization of trainers hoping to pull a fast one with an unsound horse is unfair, pointing out that the claiming ranks are rife with horses who have improved dramatically or gone south under new trainers. One trainer’s bad horse is another trainer’s project. Approval of the rule, to some, contains a tacit accusation that horsemen don’t have the best interests of their horses at heart.

In addition, the horsemen point out that all horses in California – and at all other major Thoroughbred tracks – are examined by state veterinarians for soundness and lameness before a race, and that the rule will now draw attention to any trainer whose horse breaks down on the track, regardless of whether the horse had an issue before the race.

Arthur said the rule was not written as an indictment of trainers at large, but he said there were some horsemen in California who had reputations for entering unsound horses in races. The rule was approved to make those horsemen think twice.

“Trainers, by and large, don’t play that game,” Arthur said. “But we don’t regulate for the average guy. We don’t make everyone go through security at airports to find the average guy. We are always looking for the outlier.”

There are several horsemen outside of California who say they support the rule voiding claims on dead horses. Richard Violette, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said his board has discussed supporting a similar rule. He cautioned, however, against carving out any other exceptions, seeing a slippery slope in any effort to expand the conditions that would trigger a void of a claim.

“I think it would get very, very complicated if you started talking about horses that ‘don’t finish,’ for example,” Violette said. “You could get in a lot of trouble trying to define something like that.”

John Ward, the trainer of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos and a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said he was in support of a rule change but acknowledged that his operation wouldn’t be affected by the modification.

“I don’t work that side of the fence, but let me put it this way – I don’t see any downside at all for the horse,” Ward said.

Burr Travis, an attorney and horse owner who is a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s Rules Committee, said he would be reluctant to embrace the rule. Burr said the claiming game works best when there are no ifs, ands, or buts attached to a claim.

“You’re gambling when you roll those dice,” Travis said. “That’s the way it’s always been. You’re on your own. That’s the only way it’s fair to all.”