Maryland is raising its performance requirements for horses stabled or entered at Laurel and Pimlico, which officials there hope will result in a better racing product and improved equine welfare. A note appearing on overnights last month informed horsemen any horse which has not finished first through fourth in its last eight starts would no longer be allowed on racetrack grounds, and entries from such horses would no longer be accepted.
Previously, the requirement was for horses to finish first through fourth in at least one of their last 12 starts.
Racing secretary Chris Merz said the reasons for the change are twofold: they're an attempt to improve the quality of racing fields and to encourage better management from trainers.
“Maryland racing is one of the very few jurisdictions in the country that's continuing to improve,” said Merz. “To get ahead of the game, with everything that's going on in the industry we wanted to make a point of improving the quality of racing here, and make it better for fans and bettors. Our goal is to eventually improve our quality to get into the ranks of a NYRA or another A track. Right now, we're on track.”
While Laurel's neighbor to the north, Delaware Park, has repeatedly cancelled race dates due to lack of entries, Merz said he's not concerned the new restriction will place Laurel in danger of a low horse population.
“When we ran the numbers, we took all the horses on the grounds and looked through their PPs in their last 10 or 12 starts or so, and actually a lot of the horses didn't [fail the requirement] but a few of them were close. We have noticed what's happened in the past (we had it in the overnight for about two months) a lot of people started spotting their horses better,” he said. “As of now I've got a great racing office here, a great turf course, and we're feeling good [about the population].”
Merz said the recent events at Santa Anita have made his office sensitive to public perception of everything, including the fitness of horses running at the track. For those who are still struggling to place well, Merz said officials are coordinating with trainers to encourage them to retire horses through accredited aftercare organizations, rather than pushing for one last race.
“A rule like that will make trainers think twice about a spot,” he said. “We have the Beyond The Wire program here for placing horses in a second career. That also came into play. We've checkmarked a couple horses and we're reaching out to those trainers, too. We're saying, 'Yeah maybe your horse isn't competitive in Maryland; you can try to go somewhere else, but we can also get that horse into a second home and give it a good life going forward.'”
As we reported in our series on claiming horses, performance standards are most commonly addressed by tracks (rather than racing commissions) in their condition books. Performance standards vary widely between tracks, with some requiring a certain placing or number of lengths off the lead, and others addressing a minimum claiming price the horse must have started for. In the age of social media, horse welfare advocates can and do take note when they see a horse repeatedly finishing up the track, particularly if that horse fails to finish a race altogether. Merz, who has also worked at Santa Anita, said he remembers restrictions there as even tougher, requiring a minimum finish position within even fewer starts than Maryland.
“Each jurisdiction has its own quirk but what I'm starting to see is with everything going on at Santa Anita and the push toward integrity, you're starting to see more tracks come up with rules like this,” he said. “On top of that, it states in almost every condition book that entries are at the racing secretary's discretion so if I come up on a horse I don't feel should be in there, I have the authority to pull the entry.”
A spokesman for The Stronach Group said the eight-start requirement will only apply to Maryland racetracks for now.
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