08/19/2003 11:00PM

That's why they call them optional claimers

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When optional claiming races starting becoming widely used a few years ago, I doubted they would catch on. I thought wrong.

Now many racing secretaries write optional claiming races. Only those tracks blessed with large fields do not have a need for them.

Optional claiming races have been good for more than horsemen and racing secretaries. They have also been rewarding for bettors by increasing field sizes.

Optional claiming races are races run under dual conditions. Some horses run under the allowance conditions of the race, and others start for the designated claiming price.

At Ellis Park in Kentucky, for example, three-other-than allowance horses compete with $50,000 claiming horses in an optional claiming race. But these levels differ from track to track, depending on the quality of the local horses.

So a traditional three-other-than allowance at Ellis Park that might have normally drawn five or six horses might now feature a field of seven or eight by picking up a couple of claiming horses.

That makes for a larger field, which provides more betting options and increases handle.

Back when these things started, I theorized, incorrectly, that claiming horses would repeatedly get dusted when matched against allowance horses in optional claiming races.

Instead, claiming horses have held their own. Sometimes, in fact, they are more rewarding at the mutuel windows than their allowance counterparts.

The claimers are not as flashy as the allowance starters. They often lack the fine pedigrees and rich purchase prices of their allowance rivals, and by being risked for a price, often they are viewed by the public as being inferior from a class standpoint.

Generally, that is not the case. They are always vulnerable to a future stakes horse moving through the allowance ranks, but most claiming horses who compete in optional claiming races have already cruised through their allowance conditions. Although their form may be in a slight state of decline, they are quality runners who are battle-tested.

If overlooked by the public, they can make good wagers. Take a glance at the charts in Daily Racing Form Simulcast Weekly, and it becomes apparent that up-and-coming allowance horses do not always win optional claiming races.

For example, Maria's Mirage ($6.60), entered for $62,500 against two-other-than allowance horses in an optional claimer at Del Mar, won by 9 1/2 lengths July 28 with a Beyer Speed Figure of 109. A few days later, Hurricane Merle ($29.80) scored for that same claiming price when matched against three-other-than opponents in an optional claimer at Arlington. And on Aug. 3, Haskell Day, Heroofthegame ($9.20) cruised for a $40,000 price when matched against three-other-than allowance horses at Monmouth Park.

It is a sound practice to keep records of how these claimers perform on a track-by-track basis, since the claiming prices of these optional claimers are not consistent across the country. Claimers who run against two-other-than allowance horses race for a $25,000 price at Calder, $40,000 at Ellis Park, and $62,500 at Del Mar.

If a racing secretary assigns too low a claiming price for an optional claiming race, the allowance horses will likely dominate. But if the price is high, a trainer can feel safe risking his horse for a price, and the claiming horse would figure to do well.

There are other factors to consider when betting optional claimers. First, it is important to know the rules regarding purses for optional claimers.

Horses entered for a claiming price in an optional claiming race in Kentucky do not race for Kentucky-bred financial incentives (KTDF), even if they were bred in the state. A $40,000 optional claiming race at Ellis Park with a $33,000 purse is worth only $22,000 to a horse entered for a price. That is far below the $32,000 purse for which regular $40,000 claimers race at Ellis.

Because the purse at Ellis is significantly less, it stands to reason that trainers may not be as aggressive with their placement of horses in optional claiming races there.

A second and equally important trend is that males claimers seem to perform slightly better than female claimers in optional claimers. This is because male claimers are superior to female claimers. Many male claiming horses are geldings, and have little or no residual value. They can be managed much more aggressively and risked for claiming prices.

Fillies, on the other hand, are more conservatively placed because they have futures as broodmares if accomplished or well-bred.

It is not uncommon to see a stakes-winning gelding running for a claiming price, but most stakes-winning fillies with pedigree are retired for breeding before being put in for a claiming race.