California racing’s Catch-22

by | 08.08.2012 | 3:36pm

To best demonstrate the California Horse Racing Board's new rule voiding the claim of any horse that is catastrophically injured and euthanized on the racetrack, I'd like to borrow some dialogue from the 1970 movie “Catch-22,” based on Joseph Heller's ground-breaking novel of the same name.

The conversation takes place between the reluctant commander, Maj. Major Major Major, and his pesky assistant, First Sgt. Towser.

Major Major: Sergeant, from now on, I don't want anyone to come in and see me while I'm in my office. Is that clear?

Towser: Yes, sir. What do I say to people who want to come in and see you while you're gone?

Major Major: Tell them I'm in and ask them to wait.

Towser: For how long?

Major Major: Until I've left.

Towser: And then what do I do with them?

Major Major: I don't care.

Towser: May I send people in to see you after you've left?

Major Major: Yes.

Towser: You won't be here then, will you?

Major Major: No.

Towser: I see, sir. Will that be all?

Major Major: Also, Sergeant, I don't want you coming in while I'm in my office asking me if there's anything you can do for me. Is that clear?

Towser: Yes, sir. When should I come in your office and ask if there's anything I can do for you?

Major Major:  When I'm not there.

Towser: What do I do then?

Major Major: Whatever has to be done.

Towser: Yes, sir.

That, in a nutshell, is the new claiming rule, as explained in a Catch-22-like press release distributed the other day by the California Horse Racing Board.

A claim may be voided if a horse suffers a catastrophic injury on the track and is euthanized. However, it is recommended that horses not be euthanized on the track and be brought back to the stable area instead and euthanized there. In that case, the claim will not be voided.

Only Joseph Heller could have written such a screwy rule, however well intentioned it might have been when it was first introduced.

It reminds me of another piece of dialogue from “Catch-22,” when the lead character, bombardier Capt. John Yossarian, tries to avoid the horrors of bombing the enemy because it is driving him crazy.

“Let me see if I've got this straight: in order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy and I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy any more and I have to keep flying.”

California's rule is being challenged after an incident involving Elivette, a daughter of Van Nistelrooy who ran for a $12,500 claiming tag at Del Mar on Aug. 3. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and owned by Pinnacle Racing, Elivette broke down in the stretch and was vanned off after that race, then euthanized in the stable area upon the recommendation of a veterinarian.

Elivette was claimed by trainer Doug O'Neill on behalf of Fortuna Ranch Racing. Because she did not die on the track but was euthanized in the stable area, the claim was not voided, per California Horse Racing Board Rule 1658, which reads in part: “The stewards shall void the claim if the horse suffers a fatality during the running of the race or before the horse is returned to be unsaddled.”

The rule is now being challenged by O'Neill and Fortuna Ranch Racing.

Following is the press release distributed by the CHRB:

The recent incident at Del Mar involving the injury and claim of Elivette involves two separate issues that warrant clarification. The first is whether Elivette should have been euthanized on the track.

Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, said, “The answer is clearly no. Euthanasia is an irreversible decision. For that reason the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends that when it can be done safely and humanely, all horses should be taken off the track, so they can be properly evaluated by the attending veterinarian (s). All major racetracks in California have followed that approach for many years. Horses survive injuries today and lead productive lives, some even returning to racing. On-track euthanasia is warranted only when there is no reasonable alternative, and these situations do happen, but in the case of Elivette, Del Mar's track veterinarian, Dr. Dana Stead, determined Elivette could be safely transported off the track. This allowed her veterinarians to evaluate the extent of her injuries and make the appropriate decision after consulting with the owners and trainer. A Kimsey brace-an injury stabilization device developed at southern California tracks was placed on her injured leg and Elivette was transported the short distance to the trainer's barn. Her veterinarians were notified she was on her way before she was off the track, so they could attend to her quickly.”

The second issue is changes to the claiming rule, which allows claims to be voided.  Dr. Arthur explained, “The first Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in 2006 made over 30 recommendations to make racing safer for horses and riders. One of the recommendations sought to protect claiming horses by allowing for the voiding of claims of horses that are injured or do not finish. No change is easy in racing and the question of voiding claims on injured horses has been debated for years. After considerable discussion and input from the industry, the CHRB adopted a revised version that limited the conditions under which a claim would be voided. The limitations of the rule were thoroughly discussed and officially described in public documents. Whether to purchase claiming insurance or not, as with all insurance, is a business decision based on risks and vulnerabilities. Only a handful of claims under unusual circumstances have been voided under this rule. Regardless, the effort to void claims was never a claim insurance issue.  It is a horse welfare issue.”

The voiding of claims for severely injured horses has been scheduled for some time to be addressed either at the August 23 meeting of the CHRB or the August 24 meeting of the CHRB Medication and Track Safety Committee.

Those meetings in August are something that even Major Major Major Major might want to attend. This is a Catch-22, defined as “a situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.”

It needs fixing.

  • Jon Cohen

    Excellent article pointing the obvious semantic flaws in the writing of the rule.  it seems clear that the spirit of the rule is the claim should be voided, however the gray area placing the onus on the track veterinarian is where the troublle lies.  Considering that the filly was euthanized upon her return to the stable area, the only thing the state vet did was spare the crowd the ugly scene in front of the grandstand.  One could argue that motivation superceded the inevitable, causing needless suffering to the animal and the dispute now at hand. 

     The state vet should not be held responsible for doing what she believes to be correct nor should O’neil’s owners be denied the appropriate restitution the rule intended to give them. 

  • harnobuff

    good post, Cohen.  But how can one state vet refuse to make a decision that it took a private vet only a few seconds to make?  The answer is that the track vet has no idea and he answers only to the guy who is the real problem in this entire equation, namely, Rick Arthur.  As long as CA racing keeps him on board, it will continue to be on a downward slide.

  • truth hurts

    The bigger issue you guys have missed is the racetrack safety statistics that everyone is clamoring for and about.  If the horse is not euthanized on the track it doesn’t count as a “catastrophic breakdown.”  If the horse is vanned off the track and put down moments later it doesn’t count against the statistics, which is what the state vets and tracks really seem to care about.  They will, and do, seem to find every iota of excuse to put one on the van and get it off the racetrack still breathing.   This seems to be especially prevalent at racetracks who installed synthetic surfaces who wanted to trumpet “how safe synthetic tracks are.” 

  • FourCats

    There is a very simple solution to this whole problem (though one that some people who claim often wouldn’t like).  Eliminate claiming races.  The only reason that they really exist is because it was thought that the claiming price made sure that the horses entered would be competitive with each other.  But, making the races competitive could just as easily be accomplished by specifying entry conditions on the races.  A possible example would be that a race is open to horses who have not won $10,000 in their last 6 races.

    I believe this would appeal to most owners as it would mean that you could prepare your horse properly (even when he/she was not a stakes or allowance class horse) for a race without the concern that all of your hard work would go to someone else who just snatched away your horse.  And it would also eliminate the despicable practice of dropping a sore or sick horse hoping that it is claimed.

    So how would one sell a horse?  There would still be auctions and private sales.  And another possible way would be for the track to start keeping a “claiming” list where owners could offer their horse for a specific price.  It could be handled identically to the way claiming races are handled now with one big exception; the horse up for a “claim” would not be entered in a race.  He or she would simply be offered for sale (and could even be inspected by the buyer prior to the sale taking place).

  • kyle

    The rule reads “suffers a fatality during the running of the race.” It makes no mention of where the horse is euthanized and the time frame in which euthanization takes place. “Suffers a fatality” does not mean the same thing as dies or is killed. In this case it’s indisputable that the horse suffered its fatal injury during the running of the race. The claim, therefore, should be voided.

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    That is an interesting line, and the lawyer part of me says that if you really wanted to interprit that to the letter…that means the horse would basically have to die during the running of a natural cause (be it broken neck when falling/heart attack/or ruptured vessel for example).  Euthanasia on the track would not even count (again if you took it to the letter of the rule).  I also agree that the rule should be more lax.  Some horses can get injured (some fataly) and have been sound all their life, and some can definitely be doped up or put in while not at100% in the hopes of a quick sale.  Basically..the rule should be if the horse is injured in a way that requires them to be transferred off the track in the ambulance, the claim should be voided IF the one making the claim decides he/she wants to void the claim.  This takes the pressure off the track vet and even the horses own vet.  It is on the person making the claim if they want to (after being informed of the horses conditon..assuming it was not a fatal or career ending injury) keep the claim in or not. But then again this is California and nothing that simple would ever be done…


    True, GET RID OF RICK ARTHUR and you will see a substantial good change within the State Vet.  He is the same person that wrote the rule that allowed Sadler to steroid a ton of horses, although John followed the rules it was a license to steal. I really cannot fault John for doing what he did.  Tho, it was dispicable behavior on his part.  Maybe that is why the CTT Board did not re elect him.

    Once again Rick Arthur is part of the race tracks three stooges.

  • MA

    Not true. Euthanasia stemming from an on-track injury is counted in the fatality statistics, as are barn-area fatalities such as colic.

  • stillriledup

    So, at the end of the year, when DMR wants to trumpet the virtues of a safe plastic surface and they come out with their year end death toll, this death won’t ‘count’ as a death caused by Polytrack? After all, she didnt die on the track, right?

    As far as Four Cats comments on eliminating claiming races, i couldnt agree more.

    With the current state of the game, and the new breed of ‘supertrainer’ the claiming game has turned from  an easy way to get a newbie owner into the game, to a situation where certain people are just playing ‘rent a horse’. When you’re a rent a horse trainer, that’s not going to be good for the horse as the new connections are going to treat that horse the same way people treat rental cars from Hertz or Avis.

    Everyone knows that you drive a car you own much ‘easier’ than you’ll drive a rental car and i think the same holds true in racing.

    If owners were forced to enter the horse racing ownership game by either purchasing yearlings, purchasing from a mixed race horse sale or buying privately, that would require owners to actually have to put in some time and effort to acquire a racehorse. When you put in time and effort, the odds are you’re going to treat that horse with more respect than if you play the rental horse game.

    If an owner acquired a horse privately from a sale, they would be purchasing a horse who was ‘vetted out’, they would know the history of the horse and if anything was wrong. Also, since claiming races have been abolished (thanks to Four Cats and myself!) these new owners wouldnt have to worry about losing a horse the first go around, they would be able to actually treat their horse as if they were going to own him or her for more than one start.

  • Rob from the Az.

    I was at Del Mar last Friday and it looked pretty obvious they would have to put the horse down, but the horse got pulled up right around the finish line and its probably not the best place to put horse down in from of the fans. It’s a bad rule where it would put a vet in that position. It does make you wonder though if O’Neil trained the horse and Hollendorfer claimed the horse if the same decision would have been made?!

  • Trainer

    Okay this is a short no brainer. If a horse dies or has to be euthanized as a direct result of the race in which it was claimed then the claim shall be voided!!! No meeting needed just Common Sense.

  • Jon Cohen

    This will never happen.  Te quality scale of horses is like a pyramid, with the small percentage of the very best on the top, and the workaday runners filtering towards the lower levels in larger numbers.  Claiming races provide the best way to match horses of equal ability, by value, and at the same time providing market liquidity.  You are wrong, most owners very much like claiming races as a way to both sell horses a aquire new ones.  This fairy tale of eliminating claiming races as the cure to this problem as you claim it is, is as foolish as the one perpetuated by those that said synthetic tracks would eliminate injuries and that eliminating the use of lasix will stop cheating.

  • pp

    The problem is the definition of fatal. Barbaro didn’t die of a broken leg. He died of laminitis, so was his initial injury fatal if he survived 8 months? One could claim that most injuries are repairable, but surgery costs more than cheap claimers are worth. The original trainer wants the horse saved, the new trainer wants him put down.

  • Kirk S.

    True MA.  Unfortunately in California, even steward minutes have no standards when reporting fatality statistics.  Southern California tracks, where most of the racing money is, lumps all deaths into summary with no explanation.  

    Northern California steward minutes have a vet notate every death in their jurisdiction, the horse, cause of death and where (racing, training or illness).
    When the CHRB doesn’t have clear standards for minutes and public reports, it loses credibility in all areas.

  • May Flower

     Within 72 hours or one week.

  • FE Davidson

    FourCats, your post is right on.  While your suggestion may have some impact on the eventual breakdowns of horses that are relentlessly lowered in conditions until they are physically unable to compete any longer, it would be most successful in precluding the knowing drop to make a few dollars on a horse that shouldn’t be on the track.

    From a practical perspective, if trainers and owners recognized that they could treat their less capable horses just like their more capable horses and not risk losing the horses, then is stands to reason that the less capable horses would be better treated and more likely to be retired before it’s too late.

    As to Mr. Cohen’s reply, the “quality scale” to which he refers can easily be accommodated by the use of creative conditions/purse sizes that foster a competitive spot for all horses.  All it would take is a little thought and a modicum of intelligence.

    Of course, trainers who churn their clients’s horses to make a commission on every claim will not be in favor of such an approach, but the purists, who don’t cheat their clients and actually care about their equine racing partners would welcome the change.

    Count me in as a supporter.  Now, all we have to do is find a track and racing secretary that are willing to take the risk that may change the character of racing on many fronts.

  • Jon Cohen

    Good luck getting your “creative conditions” to fill. You think claiming races are the reason horses break down ?  Shall we make a list of all the horses that have broken down in stakes ?  You people that think that it is always the cheaper horses, are sadly, sadly mistaken.  Horses are cheaper, mostly because they are SLOWER, NOT MORE UNSOUND.

    If you are so afraid of losing your horse in a claiming race, take him home and keep him in your backyard.

  • Rob

    Here lets make it even more simple but the horse on the horse van and call the vet in that way the horse is still on the track if you have to put himor her down then do it there claim voided.  By the way not 1 person has said that horses are breaking down left and right at Del Mar this season but it seems like it has been offen this meet so far.

    Bob in PA 

  • FE Davidson

    Clearly, you’ve misinterpreted what was written.  There’s no assertion that claiming races are the reason horses break down, nor that breakdowns are limited to what you define as “cheaper horses.”  And, I agree that soundness and speed are two of the reasons the horses are run at lower levels. 

    But, why is it that you believe that lower level (non-claiming) races with well written conditions would not fill? 

  • May Flower

    PP you make some great points. “Fatal” needs to be clearly defined.

    There are some obvious fatal injuries, some less obvious ones and non-fatal injuries that become fatal due to severe laminitis, economical (including re. insurance) or sentimental reasons.

    When non-fatally injured race horses are sent to slaughter those injuries become fatal to those horses and should be recorded as such. If those fatalities were ever to be counted though, the blame game would get as ugly as slaughter.

    Some horses can survive serious injuries and other cannot for different reasons including luck and quality of care.

    IMO, Barbaro died because of his racing injury and should have been euthanized before or after the first surgery failed, certainly after he foundered in his left rear and before most of that foot was removed.

    I remember reading before the accident that his insurance policy had been substantially increased between Derby and Preakness. What role did the insurance company play in keeping that colt alive at all costs until laminitis finally hit his front feet and the experiment had to end?

  • Thelibrarian

    Barbaro died of mortality insurance. He should have died from a broken leg.

  • guest

    Doubt insurance played any role. Owners made the decision to keep on. Guessing they could have euthanized him on the spot and collected.

  • Maureen Tierney

    I agree completely!

  • daverg

    the should have an auction after each claiming race, with people authorized to participate in the auction prior to the race. Auction area limited to the trainers. Then let them bid on the horses that they want, starting at the claiming price, then let the highest bidder take the horse. 

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