For much of the country, horse racing is the first Saturday in May or the first weekend in November, with millions of dollars in Thoroughbred muscle jogging before a national television audience. Those inside the business realize the average day in the sport is much less glittery, with card after card filled with horses running for a claiming tag.
Claiming races are the bread and butter of the sport, and their frequency is one of few things that hasn't changed in the past decade. According to the Thoroughbred Times Racing Almanac, roughly 65.6 percent of races in America were either claiming or maiden claiming races in 2006. In 2015, the proportion was 62.7 percent, representing 26,392 total races.
Those figures don't capture the diversity within the claiming ranks. Some horses make just one stop in a claiming race as preparation for allowance contests. Others earn their keep (or try to) with a price on their noses all year long, often making frequent starts to pay the bills.
Like it or not, Midwest trainer Tim Glyshaw said the claiming business is what supports the rest of the sport.
“I'd say most everyday trainers have 40 percent allowance/stake horses and probably 60 percent claimers. Maybe even closer to 50/50. That's probably a good average for Churchill Downs,” he said. “If you go to Indiana Downs or Mountaineer Park, that number of claimers versus allowance horses goes way up. It's really what keeps our game going. If you look at a really nice day at Churchill Downs, you'll still have four or five claiming races. They wouldn't be able to put on a card for the day if they didn't have claiming horses.
'You could say the guys that play arena football, you might say if they couldn't talk that they were the ones who were 'too sore' to play in the NFL. Really, what it is, is they're not as talented, and that is what the claiming game is. They're the ones who aren't as talented.”
Although claimers are now a cornerstone of American racing, the template comes from England. According to the Almanac, the first claiming race may have been held as far back as 1698, per a condition book for the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Over the years, the model has shifted from allowing owners to bid on or buy selected finishers after the race, to the current system of every horse in the race being available for a set price.
In modern times, North America conducts claiming races with unparalleled frequency compared to other top-level racing countries. Hong Kong and Australia do not hold claiming races as such; Ireland currently runs about a dozen claiming races each year (although there have been discussions about adding more). France holds claiming races, but they are more akin to silent auctions, with patrons putting claims on the top three finishers after the race is run. Claims are taken as sealed bids, with the highest bid winning the horse, and owners have the chance to put a claim on their own horse if they don't want to give him up.
These days in the U.S., claiming has a somewhat murky reputation, especially to those not directly involved in the business. After all, career claiming horses are less likely than their more accomplished compatriots to retire to a guaranteed career in the breeding shed. The tracks and jurisdictions with the cheapest claiming races can often be the ones with the smallest budgets for post-race drug testing, are less likely to have extensive networks of private investigators or equine medical directors monitoring equine safety, etc. In our reporting earlier this year on enforcement of anti-slaughter policies in Louisiana and Florida, we found a majority of horses rescued from kill pens had made unsuccessful last starts in claiming races before leaving the track.
Additionally, claiming is associated with a few key risk factors for catastrophic breakdowns, according to data from the Equine Injury Database. Dr. Tim Parkin presented data at the 2014 Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit that showed switching barns, which claiming horses probably do more than non-claimers, increases the risk of fatal injury. A horse that has been in his trainer's barn for only one month has a 60 percent higher risk of fatal injury than one that's been with his trainer for four years, with the risk declining in a linear fashion the longer the horse remains in the same barn. Horses with a drop in claiming price since their last start are at increased risk for fatal injury: horses dropping in price between $500 and $10,000 have a 14 percent higher risk, while horses dropping in price more than $10,000 have a 16 percent higher risk.
Not all claimers toil in obscurity, however, and certainly not all of them are destined to leave the track in an equine ambulance or be bound for a feedlot. Anyone working in the business will tell you that some proportion of owners and trainers on the track send retirees to rehoming organizations, and a few of the best-known even greet fans at Old Friends.
Crème de La Fete, John Henry, Lava Man, Seabiscuit, Stymie, Princequillo, and Charismatic all ran for a price at some point in their lives and went on to fame either because of their resumes or in spite of them. Claiming is still a huge percentage of most trainers' business, and arguably made the careers of Hall of Famers Marion and Jack Van Berg, as well as Hirsch Jacobs, and Bobby Frankel in his early days.
Trainer Ron Moquett said he's frustrated by the reputation of the claiming business as a place populated by owners and trainers with no interest in equine welfare. Indeed, a quick scan of Thoroughbreds available for adoption from New Vocations in summer 2017 found six of 14 available horses having made their last starts in claiming races.
“It's perception. The problem is everyone looks at a car wreck. They don't talk about the 500,000 people who went down the road today [with no issue],” said Moquett, who has driven eight hours to claim a horse back in order to retire him. “When there's finances involved you'll never, in any part of life, be able to completely take out someone who is not in the game for the right reason. I don't think horse racing is an exception from that, but at the same time it's not as bad as people make it out to be. Mind you, I go to Keeneland, I go to Oaklawn Park, Churchill, Saratoga, so I'm not at the other spots as much. But for me there's not the big dark cloud I hear everyone talking about. I would hate to think that was the reality.”
Claimers can be good business too, when a trainer and a horse really click.
Glyshaw started his career with claimers and they have been some of his biggest success stories. He picked up Tiban, a gelding by Flatter, for a $7,500 tag, and the horse went on to compete and win in allowance company and collect close to $200,000 by the time he was retired from racing. Tiban also picked up a win in Gulfstream Park's Claiming Crown Express Stakes in 2012. Another Glyshaw trainee, Ready's Rocket, also a $7,500 claim, set a modern day record of 11 wins at Churchill Downs in his 74-race career.
“It is very rewarding to claim a horse and move it up, not to prove you're better than the other guy, but maybe to show there's something you're doing that affected that horse a little differently,” Glyshaw said. “There's times also when you claim a horse that they really liked the other trainer or whatever, and they don't end up running well for you at all.”
The claiming game is unique in its business structure. In a world where veterinary records are not transferred with horses and trainers rarely share secrets, owners invest in horses with varying degrees of information about the animal's past. Trainers must try to make a profit on their investment, while hoping that investment stays healthy and doesn't get claimed from underneath them. Bettors have to decide which horses are on the upswing, which are on the down, and which just need the right set of conditions to be successful.
Despite its prevalence, claiming doesn't get much ink in racing media. Today, the Paulick Report launches a series designed to take a closer look at the blue collar racing world. We'll examine the way claiming races are regulated, how claiming trainers operate, and look at both the sunny and dark sides of claiming. We hope to answer a few questions and generate a few more. Among them: How much of the claiming game's sticky reputation is earned, and how much is unfair? And, more importantly, what can we do to make 62 percent of races in this country safer for the participants?
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