If it weren't already a well-established concept in American racing, the premise of the claiming game would probably sound a little like an idea for a failed reality television show. A trainer's mission, when he chooses to accept it, is to take on a horse blindfolded, with only the horse's race record available to him. No veterinary records, no chance for pre-purchase x-rays or airway examinations, no price negotiation. Then, he's got to get to know the horse without the benefit of a farm manager's notes, and try to make a profit on the investment, sometimes in short order, regardless of whatever physical issues he may discover.
“You have to have ice water in your veins to claim horses because you never know what you're getting,” said Gary Contessa. “Generally, horses are on the downward spiral when they hit the claiming ranks, but they're sprinkled in with a few that are on an upward spiral, so it can be a very exciting game, but the numbers are such that more times than not you claim a horse that's not quite worth what you claim him for.”
Contessa built his career partially on claiming success. He learned the ropes both of stables fueled by promising 2-year-olds and those based on the claiming trade, the latter primarily as an assistant to Frank Martin. When he went out on his own in the mid-1980s, Contessa's stable grew from six horses for one owner to more than 50 in one Monmouth meet. He found colleagues from New York were happy to send uncompetitive claimers from that circuit to his barn in New Jersey, and he figured out how to set them up for success there.
Trainers each seem to have their own way of finding horses to claim. Ron Moquett, who launched his career with claimers and now trains on the Arkansas/Kentucky circuit, takes note of horses he likes in training or on the track and waits to see if they come up for a tag.
“I'll see a horse that stands out to me and I'll stalk it,” Moquett joked. “I'll really hope they'll run him for a tag and generally they don't. If they do, I'll be ready. There's several horses I have on my watch list where if they drop the horse, we'll own him.”
Contessa works in a somewhat reverse process, collecting information on horses on the New York claiming circuit and filtering those to find a good deal. Contessa works with his team of assistants to put together notes on every horse that has started for a tag in the state, encompassing post-race observations of movement and conformation, plus any records of the horse on the veterinarian list. Contessa also likes to look for clues in the horse's body language.
“Body language means a lot to me because usually a horse that's sore or not doing well is going to show it in some way – bad coat, ugly attitude. I put a claim in for a horse the other day and I watched him getting saddled, and his ears were flat back. He wanted no part of it, he kept backing up and giving the trainer a bad time,” he said. “The horse ran terrible but I got outshook. His body language was absolutely awful. I think he was a perfect example of he was not going to run a good race. But there's an exception to every rule. You might see a horse with awful body language, and he might win by ten.
“We can't ask them how they feel on the inside. 'Your legs are good, but do you have a bellyache today? Are your ulcers bothering you? Do you have a headache?' We don't even think about horses having headaches, but I'm sure it happens.”
Trainers say the research process ahead of a claim has evolved with the use of smartphones; they can now take photos or video of a horse they like during morning training or in the paddock. The trick, if the horse goes by in the morning, is then matching the horse to its registered name and race record.
There's also some degree of playing the names in the form. Contessa says he has a psychological profile on each of his peers. There are those he will avoid claiming from because he's suspicious of that trainer's scruples as a horseman, but more commonly he will avoid claiming from a trainer because he doubts he'll be able to improve the horse.
“There are some top, top notch trainers that are hometown heroes that I would never claim a horse off of because when they drop one, there's nothing left,” he said. “I'm not going to find improvement in that horse because I know that other guy has covered all the bases. There's other guys that put a horse in that I'm like, 'I have a better feed program than him, better vets, that's the guy I want to claim off of.'”
Tim Glyshaw, who trains on the Kentucky/Indiana circuit, agrees it's a red flag when he sees a big barn claim a horse, wait out the 30-day claiming jail rule, and ship it somewhere that competition is likely to be easier for a lower tag. Of course, there will often be a smaller-time trainer on that circuit who feels he's getting a deal, taking a former runner from a prestigious barn.
Patience has become an important part of the claiming game on most circuits; on busy circuits like New York and Kentucky, it's common for trainers to find themselves in a multi-way shake for a horse. (When multiple claim slips are dropped on the same entrant, racing offices randomly assign trainers numbers and shake numbered beads in a jar to determine who gets the horse.) The higher the claim price, the less likely a horse is to have a slip dropped.
“We've been outshook numerous times at a place like Oaklawn Park where a lot of claiming goes on,” said Glyshaw, who trains in Kentucky and Arkansas. “I was in 22-way shakes, 15-way shakes. Rarely do you get one of those. What I try to tell my owners is it shows we're going for the right horses if other fairly successful trainers are trying to get that same horse. If you're the only one in for it, there's a chance maybe you saw something in the horse nobody else did. But more than likely you weren't in for the right horse.”
How do you know if you've dropped the wrong claim? It takes a few days.
Contessa, Glyshaw, and Moquett agree it takes a horse a few days to see therapeutic medications wear off. With pre-race veterinary exams becoming more common at racetracks around the country, trainers no longer expect a horse could go to the post with a serious physical problem. It's still possible the horse could either injure itself during the race or be running with something non-career threatening and chronic, like arthritis or chips that never caused heat or lameness.
“I've claimed horses I thought would be phenomenal that I discovered were terrible, and horses I thought would be terrible that I discovered were ok and there was something I could fix,” said Contessa. “You have an overview of what you hope you can do with a horse when you claim it, but really until you have the horse for a week or two and little things start to pop out, you really can't say, 'I made a good claim or a bad claim.'”
Glyshaw and Contessa agreed that means the 30-day claiming jail rules on the books in most states aren't a problem for them. By the time they've rested the horse and switched him to their farrier and therapy programs, they're close to the 30-day mark anyway, and may then find they would rather not drop the tag price.
For any claiming trainer, the key to the ice water in their veins seems to be a belief in their own management system. Having the confidence to successfully train a claimer is not vastly different from a bettor's confidence in the pari-mutuel system: he must believe he can look at the same basics as everyone else and use his own special viewpoint to accomplish what others can't.
“It is very rewarding when you claim a horse and move him up, not to prove that you're better than the other guy but just to show there's something that you're doing that maybe affected that horse a little differently,” said Glyshaw.
Glyshaw suspects some horses benefit from the one-on-one handling horses get in his shedrow. His grooms are fond of feeding their charges peppermints and babying them whenever possible. That may not be the norm in more hardboot-type shedrows, and Glyshaw said it's hard not to imagine some horses could become sour if they go from a highly interactive environment to one that's more hands-off.
Claiming trainers also hope they'll be better at reading the subtleties of a horse's movement and body language than anyone else in the horse's career, and that can lead them to a physical problem inhibiting performance. To Contessa's eyes, there's a greater interest among claiming trainers in diagnosing and treating underlying issues than there used to be.
“Now there's a whole new consciousness—people want to repair horses,” he said. “It's a lot different. Not everybody puts a sore horse in to run. People repair horses and try to bring them back healthy.”
Then again, Contessa said, there are times when even a total overhaul seems to have little to no impact, even when a physical issue is treated and symptoms resolved.
“Sometimes, you claim a horse and you say, 'What a trainwreck,' and you fix this, and you fix that, and you get him sound as a bell, and he doesn't run at all,” he said. “He ran better as a trainwreck. So, you never know.”
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