This is the second in a four-part series on claiming racing. For part one, click here.
Like anything else in horse racing, the rules of the claiming game can be difficult to follow for an outsider. As with drug regulation, the rules governing claiming can be different depending upon which state you're running in. In some cases, a trainer's ability to campaign a horse may also be contingent upon track policies … or lack thereof.
A newly-claimed horse's next start is often dependent upon the terms of two rules, often called “claiming jail” rules regarding 1) the location and 2) the claiming price for the horse's next start.
Jail rules regarding location prevent trainers from claiming horses and moving them to other circuits. According to a 2012 matrix from the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program, the amount of time a horse spends “in jail” varies from 30 to 60 days according to some statutes. In other states, the horse may not move until the end of the meeting it was claimed from, regardless of how many days are left in the meet. In some states, horses may not be moved from the track where they were claimed, and in others, they may not be moved from the state. In some places, the rule only applies to trainers with stalls at the meet from which the horse was claimed, and in others, it applies to all trainers.
Still other states, including Florida, don't seem to have such a rule on the books.
Although a claiming jail rule presumably benefits tracks hungry for entries, trainers say they appreciate the regulation, too.
“I am for anything that protects the integrity. I'm for anything that protects the sport,” said trainer Ron Moquett. “I don't like it when people come in that are not supporting a specific meet, and they claim horses, and they leave. The reason is, if they're supporting that meet or that circuit, a lot of times you'll have a shot to claim them back if you like them. I've actually had to drive eight hours to go claim a horse back that I wanted just to give away.”
Moquett said if not for claiming jail rules, horses would move around the country a lot more. Boutique meets like Keeneland and Saratoga have become highly competitive environments for claiming as trainers look to get a deal on a horse and bring it back to their home circuit, where it may compare favorably in terms of quality.
“You lead 'em over there and usually if they're claimed by someone on your circuit you can watch 'em and maybe get a chance to claim them back. But because the landscape is so small now, everybody comes here to get them and you may not ever see the horse again,” Moquett said. “If you ever wanted to play the game and drop him down and get a win and bring him back up, nowadays there's people waiting there just to claim your horse. That plays into whether or not you're going to run.”
When a horse is ready to run back, many states require the horse to start for an equal or higher claiming tag than the race in which they were claimed. In most places, the horse must run for a price that's at least 25 percent higher. Some states allow the horse to start for the same amount for which it was claimed. The purpose of regulating the next claiming tag is to prevent trainers from picking up a horse and dropping him in class immediately to better ensure a victory. It's also meant to encourage responsible behavior in the claiming game by making horses somewhat less disposable and giving trainers time to assess their new horses.
A horse's claim price has been cited as an indicator of safety, especially with regards to purse value.
“Cash infusions from non-pari-mutuel sources (casinos) have resulted in steep increases in purse levels over the past several years. In 2012, a New York task force concluded that the value of the purse should not exceed 1.6 times the claiming price,” Jockey Club legal associate Kristin Werner Leshney testified at the 2015 Jockey Club Round Table. “The AAEP recently announced a similar recommendation about purses not exceeding the claiming price by more than 50 percent. Both of these recommendations were validated with data from the Equine Injury Database.”
Leshney noted only a few weeks after her August address at the Round Table, a race meet was scheduled to begin with purse values nearly 3.5 times the horses' claim prices.
Not all horsemen are pleased with claiming jail rules, however. Owner Jerry Jamgotchian spent five years in court fighting Kentucky's claiming jail rules and in late 2016, lost a petition to have the case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Jamgotchian alleges the 27 states with some form of claiming jail rules are impeding interstate commerce. He also filed suit against the West Virginia Racing Commission, which accused him of violating rules when he entered a horse at Mountaineer Park after claiming it in Indiana one month before. (Indiana's claiming jail requires a horse to stay local for 60 days.)
“How can West Virginia officials conspire and attempt to enforce Indiana laws to their own detriment?” Jamgotchian asked the Paulick Report in August 2015. “What about the horse owners' rights under the Commerce Clause? If necessary, this case will also be fully litigated to protect the rights of all horse owners.”
Another area where state regulation varies widely is voided claim rules. In 2013, California implemented a rule requiring the claim to be declared null if a horse dies or is placed on the veterinarian's list after a race (which would happen automatically if the horse was pulled up and vanned off, or might happen as a result of lameness detected after the race was complete). In its first month, 19 out of 229 claims on the California circuit were voided as a result of the new rule.
Reaction to the rule at the time was mixed; according to the Daily Racing Form's reporting, some trainers told officials they were more confident in claiming horses as a result, while others believed the voided claim rule could allow owners to unfairly wiggle out of a transaction.
California remains in the minority as far as voiding claims for unsoundness or even death. New York, Iowa, Minnesota, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Maryland will also void claims for specific reasons related to soundness (some with exceptions not granting a claim void to horses suffering from epistaxis). Other states, including major racing jurisdictions Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, Indiana, New Mexico and New Jersey, make no provision for owners who claim a horse that dies on track, much less one exiting the race with a limp.
One area of eligibility not explored at length by state regulations is minimum performance requirements. Claimers are often running as such due to a lack of success at higher levels of the sport (or anticipated lack of success), and to make ends meet for connections, many of them run more frequently than stakes horses. A trainer may choose to drop a horse down in claiming price to find easier competition, but some still struggle to hit the board. A handful of states have maximum age limits for starters or for maidens. Beyond this, only a track condition book stands between a veteran runner and another trip to the starting gates.
Each race has its own conditions, but most race meetings also outline minimum performance requirements for a horse to be eligible to stable and train on the property. The 2016 Saratoga condition book forbade non-maiden claimers from stabling if they had started for $7,500 or less, unless they had since finished at least fourth in a race for $7,500 or more. The benchmark was $12,500 for maiden claimers, with additional restrictions on required finish positions within the last four starts. At the previous Aqueduct meet, the benchmarks were $6,250 and $10,000, respectively.
The further down the racing ladder you travel, the more permissive (and confusing) condition books become with respect to a horse's performance requirements. Non-maiden claimers at Laurel Park in 2016 were barred if they had 1) Started for $3,500 and not hit the board in that race or a subsequent race for a higher price; 2) Failed to finish at least fourth within their last 12 starts; 3) Failed to win a race for a minimum of $3,500 tag or non-claiming event if they had previously started for $4,000 or less as maidens.
The situation gets more complex at Mountaineer, where in 2016 a horse was ineligible to be stabled if it had “not finished first, second, third or fourth within its last ten starts since starting for a claiming price of $5,000 or less.” An additional note in Mountaineer's condition book reiterated trainers were to remove horses within 48 hours of their becoming ineligible (which is true at most tracks we surveyed), but could notify the track if the horse “becomes re-eligible at another racetrack.” Horsemen were also reminded they lose the empty stall vacated by the ineligible horse if they do not refill it within two weeks. Trainers seem to be under pressure, then, to move struggling horses to easier competition, running back, and returning in short order to an environment where they could not compete before.
It's also hard to see how such a broad policy effectively encourages trainers to retire struggling claimers.
Public perception of welfare does not always line up with the performance requirements or age restrictions set out in state code or condition books. This year, stewards at Charles Town scratched an 11-year-old claimer making his return to the races after a six-and-a-half-year lay-off. West Virginia rules permit a horse to race until the age of 13 and require horses returning from a six-month lay-off or longer to turn in one published work in addition to passing the usual pre-race veterinary inspection. The horse concerned, Awesome Actor, fulfilled the requirements but an outcry on social media put pressure on the track to scratch him. Awesome Actor was apparently at the center of a legal dispute for several years and was nursed back to health by his current connections after being found in a state of neglect.
“We were uncomfortable allowing the horse to start, Charles Town Chief Steward Danny Wright told the Daily Racing Form's Matt Hegarty. “This was a no-win situation.”
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